A wave of homicides prompts retribution against prisoners

During January through March of this year, the main headline about gang activity in El Salvador was the ongoing decline in the homicide rate to post-civil war lows.   A daily average homicide rate of higher than 10 per day prior to 2019 had fallen to less than 3 per day by the end of this March.   The Bukele government pointed to these statistics as proof of the wisdom of its "Territorial Control Plan."  The other gang-related headline dealt with reports that the gangs were actually enforcing the government's COVID-19 stay at home order within their territories.

But suddenly this weekend, something changed. 60 people were murdered in different locations all across El Salvador on Friday through Sunday, a number more than 7 times higher than the total deaths in El Salvador from COVID-19.  The reasons for the surge in homicidal violence were unclear, but the government of Nayib Bukele responded harshly, led by presidential tweets.

Asserting that the gangs are taking advantage of security forces being occupied with pandemic response, Bukele ordered all the prisons holding gang members to be placed on total lockdown.  He ordered all imprisoned gang leaders be placed into solitary confinement 24 hours per day.  He further mandated that members of enemy gangs be mixed together in cells where they will be held without access to sunlight.

Photos tweeted out by Bukele and his government in the hours following caught the attention of world.

In a world focused on social-distancing, it was jarring to see hundreds of shirtless prisoners, forced to sit together in tight formation, bodies touching, some wearing flimsy surgical masks.  Other photos distributed over the weekend showed solid coverings being installed to cut off light into the cells.

Prison lockdowns have been used by Bukele in the past.   Shortly after he came into office on June 1, 2019, Bukele declared a state of emergency and locked down the prisons, announcing that such hard line measures would continue until the level of homicides in the country dropped.   When murders declined, Bukele said he would be true to his word and eased up on the restrictions.   In March 2020, there was another emergency lockdown in the prisons after two soldiers were murdered. 

In both of the prior emergency lockdowns, the judges who supervise prisons and must approve states of emergency required the government to ease the restrictions.   With this current lockdown, Bukele and his prisons director are asserting that they are not declaring a "state of emergency" over which a judge would have jurisdiction, but only implementing measures for greater control within the prisons.

Outside of the prisons, Bukele told the security forces this weekend that they are free to use lethal force to protect the public:
The police and the Armed Forces should prioritize safeguarding their lives, the lives of their companions, and the lives of the honorable citizens.  The use of lethal force is authorized for self defense or the defense of the lives of Salvadorans.
In the prior administration of Salvador Sanchez Ceren, when his vice president Oscar Ortiz made a similar statement about lethal force, it was followed by a surge of extra-judicial killings of suspected gang members by the security forces. 

The government of El Salvador under Nayib Bukele continues to flout human rights norms.  Bukele was already receiving condemnation for his refusal to abide by supreme court rulings related to arbitrary detentions to enforce his home quarantine decree.  The prisons had already been denounced for horrific conditions before this weekend.   Now Bukele has ordered the group punishment of thousands of incarcerated persons, depriving them of light and space and exposing them to pandemic risks.  On Twitter, he just scorns his critics in the human rights community as simply wanting innocent Salvadorans to die. 

At a time when Bukele warns his country that the risk of community transmission of the COVID-19 virus is extremely high, his administration invited into the prisons extra guards and maintenance people and photographers, any one of whom could be carrying the virus, into the petri dish of a Salvadoran prison crammed to overflowing. 

Despite all the harsh measures imposed by Bukele to punish the gangs, there had been at least 14 homicides in El Salvador on Monday as this was being written.