A suspect hugs her son while being escorted by police in a house by house operative while searching for an alleged gang member on July 6, 2022 in Soyapango, El Salvador

El Salvador: Policies, practices, and abusive, arbitrary legislation violate human rights and threaten civic space

El Salvador is experiencing an alarming regression in the respect for and protection of human rights, Amnesty International said today as it published its new report, Behind the veil of popularity: Repression and regression of human rights in El Salvador.

“The deterioration in the guarantee of human rights in El Salvador in recent years that we have documented is extremely alarming. The adoption of a focus on highly repressive security and weakening of the rule of law have led the country into one of its worse crises since the end of the internal armed conflict,” said Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Based on three research missions and 83 interviews, the report documents the establishment of a context marked by a deepening punitive and repressive focus in the area of public security; adoption of a legal framework that threatens due process; systematic use of torture and other abuse against prisoners in penal centers; and deployment of a series of governmental actions that restrict civic space. Under international human rights law, the absolute prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment and the principle of legality can never be suspended, even in exceptional situations.

The organization also confirmed the prevalence of factors that increase individuals’ defenselessness, such as the weakening of the independence of the judicial branch; wrongful use of the criminal justice system; concealment of public information; and inefficiency of accountability and investigatory mechanisms in the face of human rights violations committed by state agents.

The other face of the state of emergency

Amnesty International has confirmed that, under the application of an extraordinary temporary measure, Salvadoran authorities have restricted and violated fundamental rights, including the right to life and prohibition against torture, over the course of 21 consecutive months. The state of emergency measures have given rise to recurring patterns of violations during the cycles of detention, processing, and imprisonment, including massive arbitrary detentions; forced disappearances; commitment of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against individuals held in detention centers; and the deaths of individuals while in state custody – some as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.

“The deterioration in the guarantee of human rights in El Salvador in recent years that we have documented is extremely alarming.

Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International

Amnesty International has identified three alarming characteristics of this situation: 1) the massive number of human rights violations being committed; 2) the high degree of state coordination in the design and implementation of this measure; and 3) a state response that tends to conceal and minimize these actions, refusing to recognize and diligently investigate the abuses.

The cases documented represent arbitrarily detained persons; people whose life plans that have been truncated due to false accusations; the promotion of an environment of vengeance and distrust between members of the same communities; and the most vulnerable sector of the population living in fear of being victims of the arbitrariness and abuses inflicted by the authorities.

According to the analysis of civil society organizations’ databases, to which Amnesty International has had access, the victims of arbitrary detentions share three socioeconomic traits: low educational levels; precarious employment; and residence in areas stigmatized by poverty or gang control.

In light of these incidents, the organization warns of the gradual replacement of gang violence with state violence, whose principal victims continue to be poverty-stricken communities that have historically been ravaged by crime.

“These are not isolated cases but rather a pattern of systematic, extended abuse that primarily affects marginalized and impoverished communities. What we are witnessing in El Salvador is a tragic repetition of history, where state violence is gradually replacing gang violence, leaving the same vulnerable communities trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and despair,” said Ana Piquer.

The report highlights the dangers of the permanent legal reforms that have been approved under the pretext of facilitating the implementation of the state of emergency, which permit and grant the appearance of legality to the suspension of a series of rights and due process guarantees.

The principal changes introduced include the concealment of the identity of judges; automatic application of pretrial detention for crimes linked to gangs, without individually analyzing the cases with regard to this measure to, for example, prevent the commission of a grave crime or flight risk; and elimination of time limits for pretrial detention for crimes associated with terrorist or illegal groups. The latter’s use is enabled for an indefinite period of time and threatens the right to be tried or released within a reasonable timeframe.

According to public declarations issued by state officials, more than 7,000 people detained under suspicion of belonging to gangs and tried under these reforms have been “released” through alternative measures to pretrial detention. Many of them were imprisoned for more than a year and have been publicly recognized as being part of a margin of error. Amnesty International warns that even if the Legislative Assembly decides not to extend the state of emergency, the risk of the human rights crisis and people’s defenselessness worsening will persist if the reforms that undermine due process guarantees are not reversed.

Finally, based on an analysis of the public declarations made by the highest state authorities, civil society reports, and the testimonies and documentation that Amnesty International has gathered, the report concludes that, with respect to the situation of prisoners and the conditions in detention centers, the Salvadoran state has adopted a systematic policy of torture toward all those detained under the state of emergency on suspicion of being gang members. Among the gravest consequences of the application of this policy are the deaths in state custody, some of which show evident signs of violence, while many others are the result of inhumane conditions of imprisonment or denial of medical care and medicine.

What we are witnessing in El Salvador is a tragic repetition of history, where state violence is gradually replacing gang violence, leaving the same vulnerable communities trapped in an endless cycle of abuse and despair.

Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International

As of October 2023, local victims movements and human rights organizations had recorded more than 73,800 detentions, 327 cases of forced disappearances, approximately 102,000 people imprisoned – making El Salvador the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate – a rate of prison overcrowding of approximately 236%, and more than 190 deaths in state custody.

Civic space under attack

Amnesty International also verified an increase in state actions that threaten freedom of expression and association and present obstacles to the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly, participation in public matters, and access to public information.

The main tactics that the authorities have used to these ends include: 1) governmental discourse in the media aimed at stigmatizing the work of defending and promoting human rights and transparency; 2) harassment of journalists and any form of dissent or criticism; 3) concealment and manipulation of public information; 4) the use of vague criminal definitions that can place human rights defenders and/or journalists at risk; 5) appeals by state institutions, for reasons of public order or national security, to violate or hinder the enjoyment of human rights; and 6) weaponization of the powers of some governmental ministries and application of excessive controls over the media and civil society organizations.

The principal targets of these tactics have been human rights defenders, independent media outlets and journalists, civil society organizations, labor unionists, and justice officials who have demonstrated independence and adherence to the principles of legality and respect for the rule of law. The most alarming incidents of the suspension of rights have involved the use of the state of emergency to criminalize critical voices – to date those linked to the defense of the land, territory, natural resources, labor rights, and the strengthening of social cohesion at community level.

All of these elements have generated a milieu favoring increased misinformation and an institutional discourse that promotes discrimination, hostility, and violence as responses to mere criticism and dissent. Moreover, there has been an increase in self-censorship and self-exile among those who, as victims of human rights violations, have found that state institutions do not guarantee their protection.

Among its recommendations, Amnesty International urges the Salvadoran state to put an end to repressive security policies. This includes halting human rights violations resulting from the application of the state of emergency and repealing the legal reforms that violate due process and nullify judicial guarantees. The organization issues a reminder that, according to international human rights law, any measure taken in exceptional situations that threaten the independence or security of the state must be strictly limited to the needs of the situation and respect the principle of non-discrimination. Fundamental rights such as the right to life; prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and the right to freedom and personal security are inalienable and can never be suspended.

Amnesty International also recommends guaranteeing an organized withdrawal of the armed forces from public security tasks and strengthening the capacity of the National Civil Police. Amnesty International reminds the state of the need to guarantee that judicial institutions operate with full independence and autonomy, to ensure the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and to cease all types of restriction, stigmatization, and criminalization of critical and dissident voices.

Finally, the organization calls on the international community to maintain a firm and sustained position with regard to the regression in the field of human rights transpiring in El Salvador and to press the authorities to follow the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other United Nations Special Mechanisms.