UN: Up to 90 may have died in custody under El Salvador state of emergency

Geneva, Mar 28 (EFE).- As many as 90 suspects may have died in custody since El Salvador’s anti-gang crackdown began a year ago, the United Nations Human Rights Office said Tuesday.

The spokesperson for that agency said many suspects have been arbitrarily detained since a so-called “state of exception” was imposed on March 27, 2022, by President Nayib Bukele’s administration.

“Over the past year, 65,000 people have been detained. And some of those arrests, including of minors, could be considered arbitrary detentions since they rest on investigations that are largely groundless, or based merely on physical aspects or the social context of the detainees,” Marta Hurtado said.

Referring to those who allegedly died in custody, she said in a press conference that it is especially worrying that “there’s very limited information about investigations into those deaths.”

The measures associated with the state of emergency, which has been regularly renewed, “cause major human rights concerns,” the spokesperson said.

“We understand the important challenges stemming from gang violence and the state’s responsibility to guarantee security,” Hurtado said. “But it also has the obligation to do so in accordance with international human rights law.”

The UN office also is concerned about the conditions in which the detainees are being held, according to the spokesperson.

She said they typically are kept in overcrowded facilities where serious human rights violations have been reported, mentioning prolonged periods in solitary confinement and cases in which inmates with chronic diseases do not receive the medication they need.

The spokesperson recalled that El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombud’s Office has received more than 7,900 complaints of human rights violations allegedly committed against those detainees.

She also called for that institution to be granted unrestricted access to all of the prisons “so as to be able to produce regular and independent reports on the conditions of detention.”

“We ask the Salvadoran authorities to ensure that people are not arrested without sufficient legal authorization and that the detainees are provided with all the basic safeguards required under international human rights standards,” Hurtado said.

“An excessively repressive penitentiary model, also reduces the detainees’ opportunities for social reinsertion,” she added.

Sustainable solutions to crime and insecurity “should address the root causes of gang violence, such as social inequality, marginalization and the lack of effective social policies,” the spokeswoman said.

Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco recently defended Bukele’s controversial anti-gang crackdown before the UN, telling the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council that the measure has made the country “the safest in Latin America.”

“Many uninformed voices have spoken out against this immense effort by our country, but the best indicator that we’re on the right path are the millions of Salvadorans who approve of the government’s measures,” she said on March 2.

A succession of governments has struggled to subdue Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the other gangs, which originated in Southern California 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.

Nearly 66,000 people with gang connections have been arrested since the state of exception began, some 4,500 of whom have been released while their criminal cases remain pending, Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro told Efe earlier this month.

Families of many detainees, however, say that their loved ones were law-abiding citizens.

A recently opened maximum-security prison in El Salvador where thousands of accused gang members have been transferred has sparked further criticism, with Colombian leftist President Gustavo Petro calling it a “concentration camp.”

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