Embarrassed families in El Salvador are seeking information on the fate of their loved ones after nearly 6,000 people were arrested as a result of unprecedented security measures over the past week.
Men, women and children were gathered across the Central American country after the government declared a state of emergency on March 27, suspending constitutional rights, including the presumption of innocence.
President Naib Bukele, an authoritarian populist who uses Twitter to announce policies and condemn his enemies, said all detainees are gang members and will not be released.
A state of emergency was declared after three days of violence, killing 87 people, which Bukele blamed on the Mara Salvatrucha gang known as MS-13.
While police say they have captured MS-13 leaders who ordered the killings, there is growing evidence that ordinary people living or working in gang-dominated neighborhoods have been arbitrarily arrested.
In the capital of San Salvador, hundreds of wives and mothers gathered near a naval base, where one of the largest police cells is located. Wagons loaded with handcuffed detainees arrived throughout the week as members of the Evangelical Church handed out small cups of sherbet to tearful relatives who camped in the scorching sun.
Carmen Rodriguez, 33, doesn’t know why her husband, brother and nephew were arrested a week ago while unloading a second-hand truck for her business at the city’s main market in the historic quarter.
“When we asked the police why they were taking them away, they just insulted us,” said Rodriguez, who is struggling to find money to pay for their food. “They take the righteous for sinners. The police are doing a good job, but it is unfair that they are also taking away working people – and even worse, that they treat them like animals, ”she said.
Last week, Bukele announced on Twitter that food for the group’s prisoners would be standardized to feed new detainees because he was unwilling to take money from the education budget to feed “terrorists.”
The 30-day state of emergency allows detainees to be held for 15 days – instead of the usual three – without access to a lawyer and without the need to consider a case before a judge. The decree, which also allows police to search for cell phones and messages, could be extended.
The National Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s allies, has also passed a law extending juvenile detention and allowing indefinite detention for suspected gang members.
Zaira Navas, a lawyer with the Salvadoran human rights organization Cristosal, said: “The detainees have lost their right to defense and have no right to know the reasons for their arrest.”
Despite the wide range of new powers in emergencies, reports indicate that other constitutional rights are also being violated.
Rosa Lopez reported that police broke into her home in Santa Tecla in the La Libertad region on Saturday, March 26, and arrested her 20-year-old cousin, who suffers from heart disease. He had to appoint a lawyer and appear in court three days later, as he was arrested the day before the state of emergency was imposed, but he remains unaccounted for.
“The police did not ask, they just went into the house and took it away. They went crazy that day, captured everyone … It’s scary what they do to him and us. It is not only unfair, but also illegal, “Lopez, 26, said.
Repression is popular with many voters who are tired of gangs but have blocked entire neighborhoods.
At a military checkpoint one afternoon last week in Santa Tekla, soldiers armed with AK-47s inspected vehicles and checked people’s IDs and address confirmation before letting them into or out of the neighborhood. Anyone considered suspicious was forced to undress so that the military could check for gang-related tattoos.
Only those who have a legitimate reason can pass.
“Builders and informal workers cannot leave. They are closed, captives. Luckily, I have a formal job and [my employer] issued a letter. But if we want to go shopping after work, we can’t. There is nothing we can do, ”said the 35-year-old woman, who chose not to give her name.
Astrid Valencia, a researcher at Amnesty International in Central America, said: “We are concerned not only that these measures are disrupting fundamental elements of the proper process, but also President Bukele’s confrontational discourse of stigmatizing and attacking human rights defenders, civil society organizations and international NGOs. and the independent media for expressing their concern about these measures. “
Bukele is taking an increasingly militant stance with anyone who dares to question his government, and recently said that human rights NGOs, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations – which provide grants to NGOs and independent media in El Salvador – are are gang associates.
Even before the mass arrests, El Salvador had one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the world, with about a quarter of those detained in detention.
As mayor of San Salvador, Bukele has argued that he supports socially-focused crime prevention and rehabilitation programs to combat intractable violence in the country. After coming to power in 2019, he returned to the same firm hand or the repressive tactics of previous governments, while secretly negotiating a truce with gang leaders, according to the US.
Bukele denies the allegations, but the phones of journalists reporting on the truce have been hacked with Israeli spyware.
The names of the victims and their relatives have been changed