The government of El Salvador has arrested more than 14,000 people in three weeks, after it declared a “state of exception” in response to a spike in gang violence that grants the state sweeping powers and suspends some civil liberties.
Human rights groups have raised alarm at the intensity of President Nayib Bukele’s mass arrests and intensifying criminalisation of critics, including journalists, saying it is the latest example of his push to rapidly consolidate power since he took office in 2019.
“What is being tested by this situation is the tolerance of Salvadoran society for these rights to be limited,” said Eduardo Escobar, director of Citizen Action (Accion Ciudadana), a Salvadoran civil society organisation dedicated to transparency and anti-corruption reform.
“Because everything the government is doing now means restricting rights, and expanding the power of the state over the life of Salvadorans.”
On April 20, Bukele announced via Twitter that in just 25 days his government had arrested more than 14,000 “terrorists”, referring to accused gang members who authorities said are responsible for the country’s most violent day in 20 years.
More than 60 people were murdered on March 26. By the end of that weekend, 87 people had been killed and the Central American nation was reeling from the violence.
Both MS-13 and two factions of the Barrio 18 gangs have fuelled El Salvador’s soaring murder rates in recent years, which peaked in 2015. When Bukele took office in 2019, becoming the region’s youngest president, already declining homicides rates further decreased.
He credited his security plan for the drop, but Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro revealed in September 2020 that Bukele officials had negotiated with MS-13 leadership for a decrease in homicides.
“What’s worrying is that our rights are being limited to the applause of the people, under the false idea that the government is providing security,” Escobar told Al Jazeera.
Bukele has said his government is cleaning up the streets of El Salvador through mass detentions.
But human rights groups say they have documented a pattern of human rights abuses and due process violations, while the sheer number of arrests threatens to overwhelm an already overburdened justice system, compounding the country’s insecurity problems.
Human Rights Watch researcher Juan Pappier told Al Jazeera he has documented about 50 cases of human rights or due process violations related to the detentions so far.
They tend to follow a pattern, he said: Police first enter poor neighbourhoods with a known gang presence and round up residents, mostly young men, and then take them to the police station, where their family members are often allowed to see them briefly. Then they are sent into the penitentiary system, which is where they often get “lost”, according to Pappier.
Family members do not know which prison their loved ones have been sent to and inquiries through the official channels come up blank. This has resulted in distressed friends and family members, often mothers, wives and girlfriends, showing up outside prisons searching for information about their loved ones.
“In some cases, we’ve documented they have not been able to speak with them for several days, even for some weeks,” Pappier said.
“What is important to emphasise here is that the laws that Bukele and his allies passed are not simply harsh laws against gang members,” he added. “They are laws that put all Salvadorans at risk, that undermine their capacity to defend themselves in a criminal process, and that open the door to disproportionate sentences against people who have nothing to do with gangs.”
The number of detentions is incomparable to anything El Salvador has seen in past government crackdowns on gang violence, said Abraham Abrego, director of strategic litigation at Salvadoran human rights organisation Cristosal.
At least the past three administrations have carried out raids in response to surges in violence, but nowhere close to this number of people have been brought into the penitentiary system at once, he said. El Salvador has the second-highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, after the United States, according to Prison Policy Initiative.
Lawyers and public defenders are also overwhelmed by the influx in cases, according to Abrego. Few independent judges remain after Bukele’s party passed a reform last year giving widespread authority to the Supreme Court — led by the president’s allies — to remove judges and force them into retirement arbitrarily.
On social media, friends and family members have shared photos of loved ones who they believe were unjustly swept up in the arrests in the hopes of pressuring authorities to free them.
On April 15, Salvadoran National Police knocked on the door of 25-year-old Kevin Rivas’s house in Soyapango, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador, known for its gang presence, and arrested him.
Neighbours and family members told Salvadoran media GatoEncerrado that Rivas, who works in documentaries and audiovisual production, has no gang connections, but rather has worked with youth in the community.
“Nayib Bukele, is this really this country that you are creating? Putting in jail people who are innocent and who have even worked for the social development of youth,” wrote one friend on Twitter, according to a statement shared by the human rights group SOS El Salvador. After tweets by his parents and sisters with the hashtag #justiciaparakevin (#justiceforkevin) gained hundreds of likes, Rivas was released on April 17.
Bukele has brushed off any detentions of people without gang connections as “mistakes”.
But Abrego said many of the arrests have clearly been arbitrary, because when relatives have spoken out and drawn public attention to the detention of someone with no connection to gangs, the authorities have released them quickly. Cristosal has documented more than 90 cases it said were arbitrary arrests, but believed the number could be much higher due to a fear of speaking out.
‘Not going to resolve the problem’
Alongside the mass detentions, Bukele’s party passed a law on April 5 prohibiting the media from sharing any gang messages or messages that could incite panic in the population. The penalty for violating the law is up to 15 years in prison.
On April 19, Cristosal filed a petition to challenge the legislation as a violation of the constitution, both on procedural grounds and for limiting freedom of expression. At least four journalists have fled the country because of threats related to their work, according to the country’s journalism association.
The law is meant to create a culture of intimidation, said Pappier, “in a context where this man [Bukele] controls all the branches of power and can decide simply through his Twitter handle whatever happens in the country, whatever laws are applied, the way a judge should rule on a case or how many people should be arrested by police.”
The government has defended its actions as necessary security measures, and attacked journalists and human rights groups who criticised the recent measures as being complicit with the gangs.
“A consequence of all those people, NGOs, the media, political parties and even ‘friendly’ governments having come out to defend gang members … is that now the Salvadoran people will be clear about who has been behind the bloodshed of their family and friends,” Bukele tweeted on April 11.
But human rights groups have said this is a distortion of their arguments against Bukele’s tactics, which they add will not improve security in El Salvador. “We’re not against legal action against the gangs. What we’ve said is that it doesn’t require a state of exception to do it,” said Escobar. “This is not going to resolve the gang problem.”