Cristosal report reveals torture chamber which is Salvadoran prisons under State of Exception


El Salvador's leading human rights organization released a damning report today documenting the widespread abuse, torture and deaths of pre-trial detainees under the Bukele regime "State of Exception" which has now last more than 14 months.  These are people awaiting trial, which is the case for the overwhelming majority of the 68,000 people swept up off the streets of El Salvador since the State of Exception began on March 27, 2022.

The full Cristosal report is available in Spanish for download here. What follows is my English translation of the Cristosal news release announcing the report.   (The translation has not been reviewed or approved by Cristosal).

Cristosal Research Reveals Systematic torture and more than 150 deaths of detainees

 San Salvador, May 29, 2023. The report of Cristosal on the first year of the exception regime presents the first verified list of people who died in state custody and documents systematic torture practices inside prisons. It also addresses the situation of women, girls, adolescent boys and the LGTBIQ+ population, as well as judicial “reforms” that limit or make impossible basic judicial guarantees.


The organization documented 139 deaths during the first year of the regime, that is, between March 27 2022 and March 27, 2023. Of these, four were women and 135 men. None of the deceased persons had yet been found guilty of the crime that was charged against them at the time of their arrest. Through April 2023, the number of deaths registered by Cristosal was 153.


To obtain this information, the organization carried out field investigations -including in common graves-, collection of extensive photographic documentation of the bodies and death report of the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML); as well as interviews with relatives, neighbors, acquaintances of the people deceased and people who were detained. The vast majority of people interviewed expressed fear of being identified or making public statements, due to fear of reprisals from the authorities. In addition, their main concern is guaranteeing the subsistence and care of the children and daughters of deceased persons. In addition, many of these families have also suffered forced displacement.


The investigation carried out by Cristosal reveals that the deaths that occurred in state custody were the result of torture and serious and systematic injuries inflicted on detainees. Photographs and the IML itself documented signs of suffocation, fractures, numerous bruises, lacerations and even perforations in the corpses. Almost half of the people who died in prisons were victims of confirmed, possible or suspected violent deaths. Furthermore, about a fifth of these deaths were caused by pathologies that show deliberate negligence in the provision of medical assistance, medicines and food, even registering deaths as due to malnutrition.


The report details dozens of testimonies and cases. One of these is that of a 24-year-old young man who devoted himself to fishing and died in the ambulance before entering the Zacamil National Hospital. His body had a hole going through one of his shoulders and lacerations on his knees, but the death report of the IML determined that he died as a result of “pulmonary edema”. The impact of his death caused his five-month-pregnant wife to lose their unborn child.


The organization's report delves into the practices of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading acts that have been inflicted on a widespread basis on thousands of people detained under the exception regime. These actions clearly reveal that they are part of a punitive policy carried out by the guards and officials of the prison administration. It is evident that such actions require the authorization and support at the highest level authorities in the Security aparatus.


The collected testimonial evidence allows verifying the existence of collective torture practices time of entering prison facilities. These include trauma inflicted with batons or nightsticks by the guards, as well as torture by position, such as forcing detainees to kneel on gravel until they bleed, keeping them in a "squatting" position for long periods of time and imposing other movement restrictions. These forms of torture are perpetrated throughout the months during the imprisonment.


In addition, cases of suffocation and electric shock have been reported, as well as penetrating injuries that have been verified in people who died inside penal centers. Indiscriminate use of pepper spray for the purpose of inflicting pain has also been documented.  Extreme humiliations have been recorded, such as throwing the inmates' food onto the ground and into the mud, then forcing them under threats to eat directly from the ground using only their mouths, while they are denigrated by calling them "dogs". Some detainees have been forced to witness torture inflicted on others, even going as far as witnessing deaths caused by beatings inflicted by guards.


One of the testimonies on torture included in the report is the one detailed by a 23-year-old young man: “When we arrived at the prison, they took us off the coaster, and the first thing is that they pushed us down where there was gravel. We were on gravel for half an hour and trembling with fear because we were watching how they were brought in [another group that entered before]; crouched, kneeling, and they beat you. Next to me there was a kid who had osteoporosis, he trembled with fear and told me “they are going to kill me here”, and I told him “calm down”.  They did not beat me, but since that kid was sick, he couldn't run; he was coming slow and they beat him. Even though he was sick, that didn't matter to them. He told them that he had to take a pill, because he had some pills and he said he was going to have a fit. They didn't care, they threw them away.  They have no respect for you, for them you are of no use, and you are practically trash”.


The massive arbitrary detentions constitute the entry point to a cycle of terror that, in addition to the aforementioned, includes the imposition of de facto anticipated sentences and trials without minimum procedural guarantees. As Cristosal has pointed out in previous reports, the systematic perpetration of these violations of human rights, as a State policy adopted at the highest level, in a systematic fashion and aimed at a specific segment of the population (inhabitants of troubled communities, in situations of poverty and mostly young people), allows them to be classified as crimes against humanity under international law.


This research acquires particular relevance in a context characterized by the widespread absence of public information, the manipulation of statistics and the distortion of data in order to polish the image of government management in security matters. In addition, the families of those who have been deprived of liberty during the emergency regime continue without obtaining information about the living conditions of their loved ones, their state of health and, what is even more grave, the date and cause of death. The General Directorate of Penal Centers (DGCP) does not report about deaths or violent deaths of people in their custody, and in most cases, the relatives find out through funeral home employees or, sometimes, through social networks.


Cristosal called on the Salvadoran State to clarify the conditions of the detainees in the prisons, respect due process, release innocent people, answer for deaths in its custody, provide all the necessary information to the families, and be done with these practices endorsed by an unconstitutional exception regime.