By Larry Ladutke, El Salvador Country Specialist
That’s what a guard at the infamous Mariona prison told Salvadoran families to do when they tried to find out where their loved ones were being held during the state of emergency that has been going on since late March 2022. He advised them to try looking again after two weeks. Would you wait two weeks if you did not know why the police arrested your son, daughter, brother, sister, wife, or husband? What if you were unable to speak to them and did not know where they were or if they were even alive? Imagine if they did not have the right to legal representation. Amnesty International and Salvadoran human rights organizations have indicated that such measures may amount to the crime of enforced disappearances.
The Salvadoran government used the spike in gang killings during the final weekend in March 2022 to declare a state of emergency that has been extended two times. On June 2, Amnesty International released its initial findings during a mission to El Salvador led Americas Director Erika Guevara Rosas.
The state of emergency suspended human rights, including the rights to legal defense and to be informed of the reason why you were arrested. Having control of both the National Assembly and the judiciary, President Bukele had laws passed to drastically increase prison sentences, even allowing 12-year-olds to be sentenced to 10 years in prison. A vague law that criminalizes reporting anything that the government interpreted as helping the gangs or causing alarm. Bukele and his allies then threatened and smeared journalists and human rights groups as “terrorists” who “defend criminals.”
Tens of thousands of Salvadorans have been arrested during the state of emergency, putting 1.7% of the nation’s adult population behind bars and more than doubling the already overcrowded prison system. Amnesty International found that thousands of these people have been arbitrarily detained without due process of law. By May 18, at least 1,190 minors were arrested under the state of emergency. The family of two teenage cousins were under arrest for “looking like criminals” — vague criteria made even worse by the criminalization of being poor. At least 18 prisoners died since the declaration of the state of emergency. Amnesty International also found cases of torture and ill-treatment. One 16-year-old reported that police chained him to a wall in an adult prison and then beat him. He was then sent to a youth detention facility, where he was tortured by gang members with whom he shared a cell.
The Bukele Administration has threatened and attacked those who report abuses or try to prevent further human rights violations. Hours after President Bukele slandered journalist and anthropology researcher Juan Martinez, his Director of Prison Services accused journalists at the award-winning El Faro online periodical of being terrorists, gang spokesmen, and mercenaries. Amnesty has documented the arrest of trade unionists. The Salvadoran Network of Human Rights Defenders reported six community leaders were also arrested. Family members of those arrested have also been targeted. In April, the police arrested a food vendor and charged her with membership in an illegal group. The following day, police put a gun to her daughter’s head and threatened that she would be next. They arrested the daughter in May.
Violating human rights does not promote public security. Rather, it undermines the security of anyone who is arbitrarily arrested and subject to further abuses. Please sign Amnesty International’s online petition to demand that President Bukele genuinely respect human rights so that Salvadoran families can live free from threats, torture, ill-treatment, and repression.