The apologists

Since March 2022, the government of El Salvador reports it has captured more than 72,600 persons under the State of Exception, bringing the total number of persons imprisoned to more than 100,000 in this country of 6.3 million people.  Respected human rights organizations have denounced thousands of cases of arbitrary detentions, and have compiled reports of abuse and torture in the country's grossly overcrowded prisons.

The government of Nayib Bukele has two officials whose nominal responsibilities are to report on and highlight human rights issues within the country, including in its prisons.  The first is the Procuradora para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or "PDDH". Into English, this is usually translated as Human Rights Ombudsman, and this is an office enshrined in the Salvadoran constitution after the 1992 Peace Accords.  The second is a new post in the Bukele administration called the "Commissioner for Human Rights."   

The officials filling these positions are Raquel Caballero de Guevara and Andres Guzmán respectively.  Both have abandoned any pretense of being independent monitors of human rights during the State of Exception and have become leading apologists for the State of Exception.

In October 2022, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly elected Raquel Caballero de Guevara, as PDDH.  Caballero previously held this position from 2016-19.  Although Nayib Bukele asked her on October 15 of last year to prepare an "independent" report on human rights in all the country's prisons and made a show of telling her that all the doors would be open to her, Caballero has never delivered the promised report.

More than ten months later, on August 21, 2023, on a choreographed visit accompanied by international press but no Salvadoran press, Caballero entered Bukele's mega-prison, the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT).  Caballero told Colombian media outlet Noticias Caracol, during the tour that she does not believe there have been arbitrary arrests and detentions in El Salvador. “I don't think there are innocent people (in prisons), most of them have tattoos all over their bodies, that makes an impression,” she said.

Independent human rights experts criticized the visit as a publicity show, organized and guided by Bukele regime officials, who carefully limited what was seen and the limited interaction with inmates as prison staff observed.  

At an international conference of human rights ombudspersons in Colombia, at the beginning of October, Caballero responded to those critics who have reported widespread human rights violations under the State of Exception: 

 Caballero maintained that those who criticize “are unaware” of the situation and the true reality that exists in El Salvador. 

[Deflecting questions about those who have been detained, she stated] “We lived in a situation of anxiety, we couldn't go out and we had to entrust ourselves to God every morning because we didn't know if we were going to return home due to the situation of violence. Currently that is totally eradicated, we live in tranquility and peace. Now you can go anywhere without any problem and El Salvador, far from being the most violent country in the world, has become the safest country in Latin America,” she noted.

The other official human rights apologist for the State of Exception is Andrés Guzmán, Nayib Bukele's Human Rights Commissioner, a lawyer from Colombia named to that post by Bukele on May 24, 2023. In a profile of Guzman in the newspaper El País, the periodical reported that Guzmán came to the post with only six months experience in human rights matters, with the majority of his career focused on cyber-security.  El País said Guzmán also had several links to the political right in Colombia.   

Guzmán was also on the CECOT media tour in August. Guzmán told his countrymen from Noticias Caracol that there is no torture in El Salvador, despite reports documented by human rights advocates Cristosal and Human Rights Watch which contradict his statement.

El Faro reported in August on an interview Guzmán had granted El Faro, something rare for an official of the Bukele government:

Guzmán has already made his first public diagnosis of the state of human rights in El Salvador: in a session in which he appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as a representative of El Salvador, he categorically assured that torture does not exist in the country. However, during this interview [with El Faro], the commissioner acknowledges that when he made that statement he had not visited any prison, nor spoken to any person who had been captured,  nor requested reports from the Attorney General's office of people who died in State custody. His conviction that abuses, such as torture, are not committed in El Salvador he supports through the fact that there are no complaints filed with the Attorney General's office.

On the CECOT tour, which happened a few weeks after his El Faro interview, Guzmán asserted to the Colombian journalists that these visits are carried out periodically: “We check that they are well, that they have medical care. We seek for them to have a good situation, good conditions."   He stated "in the CECOT the inmates, within the general parameters of a detention center, are in good conditions (and) human rights are respected."   He did not state whether he had reviewed conditions in the country's other prisons where at least 88,000 of more than 100,000 prisoners are held. 

In September, Guzmán told the European Union parliament that “The [State of Exception] is designed only for gang members, for terrorists, not for people who work, who are good, or civilians.” 

The PDDH Raquel Caballero was not always so ready to dismiss the rights of incarcerated persons. In 2016 the Sanchez Cerén administration resorted to its own "Exceptional Measures" to deal with gang violence which also produced overcrowded prisons. At that time, El Faro quoted Caballero when she observed the prison conditions:

"The overcrowding…all in the same cell for 24 hours! It’s like…the torture facilities of the past. You would think that all of that was over. You would think that Hitler was a thing of the past. Once the doors are opened, what will we see?” 
The statement was from Raquel Caballero, Procuradora para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – PDDH, who was left speechless as she tried to describe what she saw in the prisons where the government’s extraordinary measures have been implemented.

Today the level of overcrowding of the prisons in El Salvador is many times worse, and overseen by a government which delights in telling how harshly it has treated those who are incarcerated, and Caballero and Guzmán have become two of the apologists for that regime.  Their public pronouncements track almost word-for-word with the publicity releases from the office of the Salvadoran president.   


Susan said…
Excellent article. I think a good addition would be to mention what the Archdiocese of San Salvador's Human Rights office is doing to document cases of detained persons not involved in gang activity.
Jenifer said…
This is hitting home for my US church and our Salvadoran sister parish this week. A young man who has been one of our scholarship student success stories, with a steady job, wife and kids, was detained by the police, then quickly transferred to a larger prison before his family and pastor could obtain money, paperwork, and transportation to get him legal representation. The charges seem pretty vague, hard to prove but also hard to disprove. Everyone trying to help him is being stonewalled. Even scarier, he has physical disabilities, which doesn't bode well for his health (or even survival) in a Salvadoran prison.