13,500 and counting. How many innocent?

Let me start this post by saying that gangs have been a terrible scourge in El Salvador.  I have known too many men and boys gunned down by their obscene violence over the past two decades.  I have heard the stories of too many individuals and families who have fled their homes for fear of being the next victim.   They don't always succeed.  El Salvador will never have peace until the root causes of gang violence are addressed.  

At the same time, I also know the stories of police abuses of people living in the marginalized communities throughout El Salvador, including those who spent days. months or years in prison before charges were found to be unsubstantiated.  We have seen  cases of the army disappearing youth from marginalized communities.  Nayib Bukele has tweeted orders to send suspects to solitary confinement in maximum security prisons, only to have them exonerated.      

So confronting gang violence in El Salvador is important and necessary.   Those who murder and rape and extort, should be individually captured, tried and punished if found guilty.  But wars have collateral consequences, and it appears that Bukele's current war against the gangs may be eliminating protections designed, not to free the guilty, but to prevent the innocent from suffering.

El Salvador is now starting its fourth week under the emergency "state of exception" which the government implemented following 87 murders in the single weekend of March 26.   As of today, the National Civilian Police indicate that they have captured more than 13,500 alleged gang members. Pretrial detention for those captured is in the same prisons as convicted criminals. The prisons where they are carrying the accused were already overcrowded, now they are filled with 22,000 more than their capacity.  

After the bloody weekend of March 26, homicides have dropped back to low levels. In the month of April, there have been no more than three murders on any given day according to the PNC, with several days without a single homicide.

The social media feeds of the police and the Bukele regime are filled hourly with photos of shirtless men covered with gang tattoos. Gang membership alone is a crime in El Salvador, and the government on March 30 increased the punishment for just gang membership to 30 years in prison.  Those tattoos will testify against the bodies they cover.   

But within those 13,500 captured it appears that there are many innocent persons whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Police are reportedly being given quotas of numbers of persons to arrest, such as an  order to make 30 arrests in Cinquera, a municipality with no known gang presence, according to the head of one organization that represents rank-and-file police officers.  A police agent described to one reporter how it might just be the neighborhood, style of dress and a haircut which was sufficient to make someone walking in the street a suspected gang member who should be arrested.

Local journalists and human rights groups have highlighted the stories of numerous individuals swept up by the crackdown who friends and family say had no connection to gangs. Some examples:

  • A school teacher who had ventured out on the street to go to the local corner store when he was grabbed by police and soldiers.
  • A factory worker coming home from his shift, walking with his wife after buying a few things for supper.   More than 15 days had lapsed and he had no initial judicial hearing and had been transferred to a prison in Izalco.
  • youth with mental disability enrolled in a special need school was captured off the street. 

When police have grabbed someone with friends and contacts who can get news coverage and broad social media networks, there have been instances of authorities admitting their mistakes and releasing them.

The human rights and civil society organizations Cristosal, SSPAS, and Azul Originario issued a report about a sample of 28 cases of arbitrary detentions and abuse by security forces.  El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman reported receiving 42 complaints of arbitrary detentions in the first week of the state of Exception.  

Police everywhere make mistakes, and a judicial system is supposed to safeguard the innocent.  There are several ways in which the courts in El Salvador are failing to protect those who have committed no crime.

First, under the State of Exception, the police do not need to observe someone committing a crime and do not need an order for capture (arrest warrant). The State of Exception allows the police to hold someone for as long as 15 days without any right to a hearing on the reasons for the arrest.    

Second, because of the overwhelming number of arrests, those detained are being processed in mass hearings, conducted virtually by video. In those hearings, which might involve more than 100 accused persons, a single judge is expected to rule on justification for the arrest and whether the person will be held in prison while their criminal proceedings advance.   

Anti-corruption lawyer at Cristosal Ruth Lopez described these initial hearings:

“It is like a maquila factory processing cases and here the freedom of the people is at stake. The problem here is that the people who have been arbitrarily detained are at risk because the prosecution cannot prepare the cases, the defense cannot act, and the judge has to see an exorbitant number of proceedings and there are no guarantees that each case can be dealt with individually as required for criminal responsibility,"

Third, defense lawyers are not being allowed to participate in the hearings.  On top of that, the Procuradoria General, which provides public defense lawyers to those who cannot afford one, closed its offices for Semana Santa as thousands of people were entering the criminal system.  

Fourth, the hearings are conducted in secrecy, with the Attorney General's Office and the courts having declared that all the proceedings are confidential and closed and may not be disclosed to the public.

Fifth, the Bukele regime is putting intense pressure on judges not to release anyone.   Any judge who releases a person for lack of proof from prosecutors faces the probability of being labelled a corrupt judge who is in league with the gangs.   Bukele tweeted without evidence that there is just a 1% margin of error in the arrests.

Here is a collection of comments from prominent Salvadoran experts:

The widespread arrests are not justified, the arrests are not the result of prior investigations; it is impossible for a Judge to receive evidence in hearings of 300 or more. Not all detainees are criminals, without defense and without judicial independence, they are imprisoned for being poor. -- Zaira Navas, former Inspector General of PNC.

Any illegal detention is a crime. It cannot be justified by adducing margins of error, or by arguing that the detainee was walking or living in a "dangerous" area of the city. Demanding responsibility, including criminal responsibility, for those who detain people illegally is a citizen's duty. -- José María Tojeira, S.J., director of IDHUCA

In a judicial system that was already collapsed before the emergency regime, the Attorney General and the courts do not have the capacity to prosecute thousands of people in the initial stage without making mistakes and without bringing innocent people into the system. There are no guarantees of due process.... 
And given the current political atmosphere, where if someone is set free it is "because of corruption" and not because there is little initial evidence, I doubt any [judge] would risk being impeached. The problem is being transferred forward in time, to the instruction stage [of criminal court cases]. -- Erika Saldaña, Salvadoran constitutional law expert


Charly Boqueron said…
the state of exception imposed by the corrupt president of el salvador and his corrupt government reminds me a lot of the infamous salem witch hunts/trials of the 1600's.

for starts, the current issue does not revolve so much now on fighting the gangs and bringing those responsible for the bloody weekend in march to justice but it rather seems like an intentional, premeditated and deliberate crack down on civil liberties for the civilian population but specially designed and directed to eliminate the influence, as the unofficial "fourth power" of the state, of the press.

just like in salem the background cover was the fear of witches amongst the colonists and used as the justification to falsely accuse individuals in other to take their basic human rights away, eliminate them as political adversaries and take away their property as a fast means to accumulate more wealth. so too, today, the background cover is the fear and panic caused by the deadliest weekend in the century is used to justify false accusations against individuals who pose a threat to the cynical official government narrative and thus take away their basic human rights, eliminate their opposing political influence, even though journalists are not politicians but their roles as reporters and their revelations have tremendous political impact; and continue the regime's relentless efforts to prevent any deviation from their corrupt, cynical and false imposed narrative on the salvadoran people.

now more than ever we need brave journalists and honest journalism to discover what it is that the corrupt government of nayib bukele is trying so hard to keep covered because many things don't add up. for example, bukele claims a tough hand on gang members but his imposed magistrates in the supreme court will not extradite gang leaders requested by u.s justice authorities. i also think it is suspicious, if there is friction between the parts in the pact of agreement between the government of nayib bukele and the gangs that this time around the gangs attacked random civilians because when the previous truce broke down in 2015 the gangs targeted government security personnel such as police, soldiers, security guards, etc. which leads me to believe that the pact may not be generalized but could be excluding important components of the gang structure and it is those sectors left out that may be trying to force themselves a place on the table of negotiations and a piece of the pie the government is handing out to those groups already at the table. but for bukele and his consultants there is always opportunity in every adversary to make the most of it to further expand on their smaller goals but always following the overall schemes of their grand master plan, which is total and absolute control of everything for the sake of amassing more wealth and more power for the dictator and his corrupt inner circle of power much like the putin regime in russia.

with all that going on the small but growing salvadoran resistance cries out:

- what is the route?

- to get that SOB out!