Crime & Justice

Salvadoran gov’t imposes information blackout on state of emergency

San Salvador, Jul 12 (EFE).- More than 100 days into a state of emergency the Salvadoran government said was needed to crush violent gangs, authorities have shared almost no information about the tens of thousands of people taken into custody.

In late March, right-wing President Nayib Bukele seized upon an eruption of violence that saw 87 homicides in three days to persuade congress to grant him special powers to battle the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS13.

The state of emergency, since extended three times, entails the suspension of constitutional guarantees and thousands of people have been detained without any requirement for warrants or grounds that would stand up to judicial scrutiny.

As of July 10, more than 45,000 arrests had been announced by authorities via social media.

But Efe’s latest approach to the presidential press office for details on individual arrests and deaths in custody was met with silence, as were similar queries from Salvadoran media outlets.

The health and security ministries, the medical examiner’s office and the Attorney General’s Office have likewise stonewalled Efe’s requests for data under El Salvador’s freedom of information law.

Officials say that statistics are non-existent or insist that the figures must remain secret, though the relevant legislation requires the respective ministries and agencies to issue public reports.

A succession of governments has struggled to subdue MS-13 and the other gangs, which actually originated in Los Angeles among the children of Salvadorans fleeing the country’s 1980-1992 civil war.

Convicted gang members deported back to their homeland from the United States established the gangs on Salvadoran soil, where the number of members is currently estimated at around 70,000.

Prior to the state of emergency, according to Bukele, some 16,000 gang members were behind bars.

Abraham Abrego, an attorney with regional human rights group Cristosal, told Efe that the Bukele administration “has not been transparent” about the condition and status of detainees and that authorities “don’t allow direct access to information allowing the corroboration of the facts.”

NGOs and the national ombud’s office have received more than 3,000 complaints about human rights violations in connection with the state of emergency, most of them for arbitrary arrest.

“It seems to us that there is a high level of arbitrariness when it comes to identifying and detaining people,” Abrego said, adding that with due process rights suspended, wrongly accused individuals could spend as long as “a year locked up without being able to argue their innocence.”

There is also a lack of information about the impact of the mass arrests on overcrowding in a prison system that was already at 119 percent of capacity in March 2021, as determined by researchers at Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador.

Human rights advocates and Salvadorian media say that more than 52 detainees have died in custody, but the government refuses to confirm or deny those fatalities.

Diario de Hoy newspaper recently reported that Adrian Efrain Solorzano Hernandez – laid to rest last week – was strangled to death at Esperanza prison in San Salvador province.

The death certificate said that the 30-year-old died from “manual strangulation,” the family told the newspaper, putting the blame on guards at the prison.

Relatives said that Solorzano had no connection to gangs.

The Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber has yet to rule on the 12 habeas corpus petitions Cristosal has helped families file to secure the release of loved ones, Abrego said.

“It has not resolved any of the cases presented, even though some of them are already two months old,” the lawyer said. EFE sa/dr

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