Mass arrests and arbitrary detentions: El Salvador’s war on gangs

Screengrab of a video filmed in front of a police post in El Salvador in late April. More than 28,000 people have been arrested in this country since a state of emergency was declared on March 27.
Screengrab of a video filmed in front of a police post in El Salvador in late April. More than 28,000 people have been arrested in this country since a state of emergency was declared on March 27. © Video filmed by our Observer

More than 28,000 people have been arrested in El Salvador since March 27, when a state of emergency was declared in an attempt to curb gang violence. But NGOs, lawyers and residents say that innocent people have also been arbitrarily arrested in this crackdown.

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On March 27, the El Salvadoran parliament declared a state of emergency for a month after 87 people were assassinated in just three days, crimes that the authorities have attributed to “pandillas", or gangs. An estimated 70,000 people belong to these groups, more than 17,000 of whom were incarcerated before the state of emergency, according to authorities.

However, for several years, the homicide rate has been steadily falling in this small Central American country, which has six million residents. 

So far, 28,331 people, accused of being gang members, have been arrested during the state of emergency, which has been extended through the end of May. The El Salvadoran police are actively tweeting about the campaign.

Tweet by the Salvadoran police on May 11 about the arrest of a man accused of being a hitman.

Under the state of emergency, authorities can arrest people without a warrant. Moreover, they can hold people for 15 days before they appear before a judge, as opposed to the usual three days.

The move has resulted in "serious human rights violations”, including " arbitrary arrests of innocent people” and “worrying deaths in custody", according to Human Rights Watch and Cristosal, a local NGO.

On social media, a large number of El Salvadoran people have been denouncing the alleged wrongful arrests of their family members.

"My brother is an excellent person. I find it unjust that he has been wrongfully accused and detained,” wrote this young woman on May 6.

'They’re giving me no information about my son'

Laura (not her real name) is a Salvadoran woman whose son was arrested in late April. She wanted to remain anonymous, out of fear of reprisals:

He was arrested by police, near our home. They told me they were taking him to 'gather information', but it wasn’t very clear. My son and two other people who had been arrested were put into a police vehicle.

This is a screengrab of a video blurred by FRANCE 24 and filmed in late April. You can see Laura’s son and two other people who have been arrested along with police in a vehicle.
This is a screengrab of a video blurred by FRANCE 24 and filmed in late April. You can see Laura’s son and two other people who have been arrested along with police in a vehicle. © Filmed by our Observer

I then identified the police station where my son had been taken, and where I would be able to see him, along with many other people. All of them were then taken away in vehicles.

A video shows the police station where Laura's son was taken, alongside many others who were arrested. We removed the sound from the video.

My son was then sent to a correctional centre. I went there myself several times but the security forces there told me that they couldn’t give my any information about him. I also went to the city prosecutor’s office several times. Because there are a lot of people waiting outside, I wasn’t able to file a complaint for a week. 

This is the city prosecutor’s office where Laura went several times before finally being able to file a complaint about her son’s arrest.
"The families of people detained under the State of Emergency are hoping to get information about their loved ones being held in the La Esperanza correctional facility known as 'Mariona'."

An NGO gave me advice on things I could do to try and liberate my son. For example, I am currently working to gather his diplomas and some of his bills. I also have gotten a number of people who know him to write letters testifying to his good character. I then have to get them authorised by a notary, which will cost me 25 dollars per letter [Editor’s note: equivalent to 24 euros], before I show them to the authorities. 

My son works. He published photos of his work on social media. He has artistic tattoos, which are nothing like the tattoos sported by "pandillas" [Editor’s note: tattoos are an important form of identification within these gangs]. Lots of innocent people have been arrested, just to inflate the numbers. 

"Please, help me with my mother. She was wrongfully arrested [...]", wrote this woman on April 21.

Already 168 innocent people have been freed, according to authorities

On May 9, authorities admitted that 168 people arrested since March 27 had nothing to do with "pandillas". They were freed after their preliminary hearings. However, these were the only people released out of a total of 15,000 people who have already had their preliminary hearings. The cases of thousands of other people who have been arrested have not yet been examined by a judge. 

'I was liberated, but I am traumatised'

Miguel (not his real name) is a street vendor. He was arrested in mid-April before being liberated three weeks later after a hearing where he was defended by a lawyer.  

I was arrested in front of my wife and children at the place where we sell our goods. The security forces took my identity card and my cell phone. Before they would give it back, I had to lift up my t-shirt. Then they took me away to 'inspect my legs'.

After being brought to different locations, I arrived in a correctional facility. There, they kicked me and hit me with a truncheon on my head, my sides, my back and my legs. They made me walk on my knees for about fifty metres. They also made me wait an hour with my hands behind my head, along with other detainees. The next day, they hit me again. 

In the end, I was put into a cell where there were more than 150 detainee – some were members of pandillas and others were people who had no gang connections. The cell was really small. There were three little windows and metallic beds for about 15 people. There were two toilets and no shower. We had two meals a day, made up of beans and tortillas. They gave us hot water to drink, which was chlorinated and iodised. At first, I only had my underwear. Two weeks later, I got a t-shirt and a pair of pants and some soap. 

One night, security forces let off tear gas into the cell because a detainee had stuck his hand out the window, which is banned. One man, who suffers from hypertension, almost died. 

I’m traumatised. Since being liberated, I haven’t stopped wondering how the other detainees, who are still trapped there, are doing. I’m anxious. I feel nervous when I go into the street. I feel really weak still, I have had the flu and a sore throat from the water I drank while being detained. My sides still hurt. 

Miguel’s injury left a scar on his side.
Miguel’s injury left a scar on his side. Photo taken by Miguel on May 11

'All of our clients were liberated after a preliminary hearing because there was no evidence that they were criminals'

Lucrecia Landaverde is a criminal lawyer who provides pro bono support for families whose loved ones have been detained.

The people who have been most affected by these arrests live in very deprived areas where the pandillas operate. But most of them have nothing to do with these gangs. 

Since the start of the state of emergency, hundreds of people have contacted us and my colleagues and I have already defended around 20 people. All of our clients were liberated after a preliminary hearing because there was no evidence that they were criminals, which proves that these are arbitrary detentions. Once a week, I also give free consultations to the families of the detained, even if I don’t always end up defending them. 

There’s a long history of violating the rights of detained people and their families but it is much worse now. For example, it’s really hard for us lawyers to even get information about the case we are trying to defend. 

For the time being, I’m expressing myself a lot on Twitter, because I want people be aware of the injustice happening and the infringement of human rights. But I also get threats every day – they say that I will be imprisoned, killed, etc. Lots of lawyers are afraid of working right now. 

In this post, Lucrecia Landaverde is denouncing the "violation of the human rights of people who have been illegally detained".