The State of Exception is El Salvador's new normal

What purported to be an emergency measure at the end of March 2022, has become the dominant rule of criminal justice in El Salvador as the government declares that its "war against gangs" must continue.  On October 14, the Legislative Assembly voted to extend the State of Exception with its suspension of constitutional guarantees for an eighth month.

In a story titled Prison deaths mount in El Salvador's crackdown, on October 24, 2022, the AP described the results to date of the State of Exception: 

The arrests of more than 55,000 people have swamped an already overwhelmed criminal justice system. Defendants have virtually no hope of getting individual attention from judges who hold hearings for as many as 300 defendants at a time; overworked public defenders juggle stacks of cases.  Defendants arrested on the thinnest of suspicions are dying in prison before any authority looks closely at their cases. At least 80 people arrested under the state of exception have succumbed without being convicted of anything, according to a network of non-governmental organizations trying to track them.

For another update, see El Salvador: 55,000 suspected gang members arrested since March in AlJazeera on Oct. 15, 2022.  

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a hearing on October 25 which had been requested by seven human rights organizations to review human rights concerns during the State of Exception.  The Salvadoran government ignored the IACHR's invitation to appear and present its position.

In their presentations to the IACHR, the human rights organizations shared the results of their report on the first six months of the state of exception. Their findings included the receipt of more than 4000 reports of arbitrary detentions by Salvadoran security forces.

Rather than send a representative to the IACHR hearing, El Salvador’s Attorney General, Rodolfo Delgado, made an appearance on a morning television show on October 25 where he stated that his office was already investigating deaths within the prisons and that half of the cases showed no signs of a crime while the other half of cases were still open.

Delgado stated that so far more than 800 people had been set free after being arrested on grounds they had shown their lack of connection to criminal activity.  By way of context, in 1489 pro forma initial hearings, more than 50,000 detainees had already been ordered to be held for trial.

The Attorney General retorted that no one should come to him talking about violations of human rights when there had been 56,000 arrests, but only 76 shootouts with gangs in the process.

new opinion poll released by the UCA showed that 30% of Salvadorans polled knew of some person who was arbitrarily detained with no apparent links to gang activity.  The same poll found that 76% of those polled approve of the State of Exception and a similar percentage believe it has made the country safer.

Reporting by Anna-Cat Brigida in  Social media gossip is fueling mass arrests in El Salvador sheds light on the social media "tips" which might lead to someone's detention:

As opposed to the official hotlines set up by the police for citizens to phone-in anonymous tips about criminals, human rights groups and sources close to the police worry that the staff receiving accusations on social media are not trained to identify whether or not they are legitimate. To make matters worse, experts believe that the police and the government have little incentive to verify these accusations, since the state of exception’s success is being measured through quotas that these social media arrests help bolster. 

Government statistics show that the average homicide rate has now dropped below 1 per day in recent weeks and months.  In contrast the daily average number of homicides ranged from 10 to more than 23 per day during months of 2015-16.   With record low murder rates, it should come as no surprise that the policing measures have been popular despite the denunciations by human rights groups.

El Salvador’s new PDDH, Raquel Caballero met with representatives of an organization (MOVIR) of family members who say their loved ones were arbitrarily detained during the State of Exception.  They left with a promise that the office of the PDDH would review their cases.  A few days later Caballero met with victims of gang violence, and promised to make central the human rights of those who had suffered violence. 

But what should happen next?  In an interview titled Ending El Salvador’s Cycle of Gang Violence, Jose Miguel Cruz, a Central American gang expert at Florida International University, argues that gang member demobilization, not mass incarceration, is the only long-term solution.