'No information about my son': El Salvador's state of emergency over gang violence drags on
Protesters gathered in El Salvador's capital on March 28 to denounce ongoing human rights abuses under the state of emergency that was first enacted a year ago in response to rampant gang violence. Since then, Salvadoran authorities have apprehended approximately 66,000 individuals, accusing them of being gang members, but many are believed to be innocent and wrongly detained. Our team recently spoke with a concerned mother whose son was arrested 11 months ago.
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The Salvadoran parliament declared a month-long state of emergency in March 2022 after 87 individuals were killed in gang violence in just three days. In a country with an estimated 70,000 gang members among a population of only 6 million, authorities say more than 17,000 were already incarcerated before the state of emergency was implemented.
The state of emergency, which gives security forces the power to arrest individuals without a warrant, has since been extended 12 times as authorities maintain that it is crucial in combating violent gangs.
The authorities say that, over the past year, they have arrested 66,417 people suspected of gang involvement. The controversial crackdown has led El Salvador’s homicide rate – previously the highest in the world – to drop by over half, according to the government. Authorities say that more than 96% of the population is in favour of these policies.
Este es Henry Iván Valencia, alias El Salvatrucho, palabrero de terroristas que delinquen en Coatepeque Santa Ana.— PNC El Salvador (@PNCSV) April 14, 2022
Este sujeto, estaba ordenando extorsiones para pagar abogados para los pandilleros detenidos durante la #GuerraContraPandillas pic.twitter.com/BvfTaVg81C
However, many NGOs, lawyers and Salvadorans whose loved ones have been arrested are troubled by the indiscriminate arrests and the human rights violations that have occurred under the state of emergency. In late March, the government announced that 4,304 prisoners had been released because there wasn’t enough proof to link them to gangs.
>> Read more on The Observers: Mass arrests and arbitrary detentions: El Salvador’s war on gangs
A group of seven organisations reported on March 27 that they had documented 4,723 cases of human rights violations in the past year, including arbitrary detentions, cruel or degrading treatment, sexual violence, torture, threats, police harassment, failure to receive a fair trial and insufficient access to heathcare. They also reported that 111 people had died in detention. In November, the Ministry of Security confirmed 90 of these deaths.
Human rights organisations say the authorities don’t always inform families when their loved ones die in prison. Some even found the bodies of loved ones in mass graves several months after their deaths.
Families of people detained under the state of emergency took to the streets of San Salvador, the capital, on March 28 to denounce these human rights violations.
‘For the past eleven months, I’ve had no information about my son’
Laura (not her real name) is a Salvadoran mother whose son was arrested in late April 2022. Our team has stayed in regular contact with her since we interviewed her for an article in May 2022. She wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisals.
Initially, my son was sent to La Esperanza penitentiary centre, known as "Mariona”. [Editor’s note: in August 2022, this prison was filled to four times its capacity.]
A month later, I got a call saying that my son was very sick and that he was going to be transferred to a different prison. But they wouldn’t tell me which one. So I went to all of the prisons to find out where he was and finally discovered he was in Quezaltepeque. But two or three months later, I went to bring him a package and they told me that he wasn’t there anymore. So I went to all of the prisons again and discovered that he had been sent back to La Esperanza.
For the past eleven months, I’ve had no information about my son. I haven’t been able to talk to him even once. When I bring packages to him – about three every two months – they just tell me, “He’s here.”
I bring him cookies, oats, milk, shampoo, body wash, laundry soap, a towel, socks, boxers and medicine like ibuprofen, because they won’t give them anything inside – vitamins, a toothbrush, toothpaste… [Editor’s note: According to an organization called the Movement of the victims of the regime (MOVIR), many of the packages delivered to prisons are stolen.] Sometimes you have to wait in line for a long time in front of the prison, sometimes not.
My son has only had one hearing in the past eleven months, back in August, but the judge didn’t want to liberate him. I don’t know when the next one will be held but I’ve gathered documents to prove his innocence – his diplomas, letters from his boss and his friends, documents showing that he has had no prior run-ins with the law… The day that he leaves prison, I’d like him to leave El Salvador. I am working with a lawyer, but she can’t do much.
Lucrecia Landaverde is a criminal lawyer who is working on a pro bono basis to help the families of people detained under the state of emergency. She confirmed that it is difficult to mount a defence for her clients.
"The main problem is that, under the state of emergency, the authorities and the judges are able to block us from accessing information. However, once there is a hearing, the people who we defend are freed. But it isn’t total freedom – they are always saddled with certain measures that replace incarceration." [Editor’s note: These men are essentially on parole and must report to sign in every two weeks.]
>> Watch on The Observers: Mass arrests in El Salvador: ‘Their right to legal defence has been blocked’
‘I want the state of emergency to end’
I spend every day near La Esperanza penitentiary centre. Each time, I see people – often mothers – who are desperately trying to get information about their children. We are all suffering.
Personally, I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for the past eleven months. Currently, I am working doing cleaning and ironing for people. I can no longer work in my shop because, since my son was arrested, the police come and harass me, like they do with all of the people who have family members in prison. I’m afraid of the government, the police and soldiers. I want the state of emergency to end.
Seven civil society organisations published a statement on March 27 and the Movement of the victims of the regime (MOVIR) have also called for an end to the state of emergency.