El Salvador has now lived under an emergency "state of exception" for two years

March 27 is the two year anniversary of the State of Exception in El Salvador.  This suspension of constitutional due process protections as part of a war on gangs was adopted by the Salvadoran  Legislative Assembly in the midst of a bloody weekend in March 2022 in which gangs murdered at least 87 people around the country. Under the State of Exception, security forces of the police and military can arrest anyone without a warrant or observing them commit a crime, can hold them for 15 days before appearing before a judge and without telling them the charges, and can freely intercept communications without a judicial order. Those detained receive initial hearings, before judges with their identities masked, in groups that often number in the hundreds where the charges are simply gang affiliation. Judges routinely order defendants into El Salvador's hellishly overcrowded prisons without bail, to await for their next hearing which could come in six months.

The Minister of Security Gustavo Villatoro says the government has arrested 78,175 “terrorists” during the existence of the State of Exception.

This gallery of photos  by photographer Carlos Barrera offers visual testimony of what the State of Exception has looked like within communities at the margins in El Salvador.

This week the Bukele regime again deployed massive force including 5000 soldiers and 1000 police (and massive multimedia recording) as part of the State of Exception. After two persons were murdered in the rural department of Chalatenango, Bukele announced that the 6000 soldiers and police were establishing a military cordon in the zone, despite the fact that persons the government claimed were responsible for the murders were already captured.

The museum of the house of now-deceased Jesuit priest Jon Cortina, founder of Pro-Busqueda, issued a communique stating that security forces had required the museum to allow soldiers to be quartered there. Other communities reported that soldiers were also seeking to enter houses.

Journalist Edwin Segura tweeted that these rural communities were ones marked by the absence of gangs and homicides over the past decades. The communities singled out by Bukele had zero homicides in the two years before the State of Exception, and fewer than 1 homicide per year in the 20 years preceding. (Those low numbers at a time when the country as a whole was experiencing record numbers of murders).  

The human rights organization Cristosal issued a statement saying that it was aware of at least 4 other persons being detained including members of the Tamarindo Foundation, and a mother with a 7 year old daughter. Cristosal called on the government to respect the presumption of innocence and the physical autonomy of local inhabitants.

One judge questioned the motives and operations which took place: 

The military siege installed in Chalatenango is an act of arrogance and exacerbated use of force that the president uses as propaganda for the regime, said Juan Antonio Durán, sentencing judge, during the TVX interview on Tuesday, March 26. 

“The president manipulates emotions, he is a demagogue and populist, with that speech he sells propaganda, he uses that military deployment as propaganda for the regime of terror that he has at the time,” said Durán. "Why doesn't he send investigators to the area? Why doesn't he use police intelligence?" the jurist questioned. 

Durán believes that the president uses the military siege to sell the image of security, which in his opinion is not real either. “Because security is not only physical security on the ground, but also legal security, but here we don't have that, he says,” he said.

On Tuesday, the director of the PNC said the operation of 6000 agents in Chalatenango had captured 8 persons.  One might ask whether sending so many troops, and so many film crews, into a region of scarcely any crime, was really justified, but the State of Exception and whom it captures often make little sense. 

In this way, the State of Exception continues, with the deputies of the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly voting to extend it month after month.

Amnesty International issued this stinging statement on this two year anniversary:

The suspension of rights that, according to international standards, must be guaranteed at all times, such as the right to a fair trial, the principle of legality in criminal matters, and the prohibition of torture and discrimination, is an action that cannot be justified under any circumstances or in any context. It is a decision that deliberately ignores the numerous allegations of serious human rights violations reported by civil society organizations in El Salvador. It also ignores the repeated calls for attention and concern expressed by regional and universal bodies that have highlighted the human rights crisis created by the disproportionate nature of the emergency measures and the new legal framework in force since the end of March 2022.

“The insistence of Nayib Bukele’s government on maintaining the state of emergency, the adoption of disproportionate measures and the denial, minimization and concealment of reported serious human rights violations reflect the government’s unwillingness to fulfil its duty to respect and promote human rights in the country. It also demonstrates its inability to design comprehensive long-term measures to address the root causes of violence and criminality without forcing the population to choose between security and freedom,” said Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International.

As of February 2024, victims’ movements, local human rights organizations and media reports had registered 327 cases of enforced disappearances, more than 78,000 arbitrary detentions – with a total of approximately 102,000 people now deprived of their freedom in the country – a situation of prison overcrowding of approximately 148%, and at least 235 deaths in state custody.

The start of a third year of the State of Exception requires a comprehensive look at what has transpired and what may be to come.   El Salvador now has both the highest incarceration rate in the world with a highly policed and militarized society, and it also now has perhaps the lowest homicide rate in the western hemisphere outside of Canada. The Bukele government says the latter justifies the former.   But does it?

Over the next several posts, I'll be writing about the prisons, the justice system, the innocent victims of the regime, the disbanding of the gangs, and a possible path forward. The State of Exception is the rule, not the exception in El Salvador, and it is the basis on which Bukele justifies his ongoing one person authority. There is much to be said. 


Who Knows? said…
I have volunteered with a community-based NGO that works in several rural areas in El Salvador, and multiple people I have met while there have been detained without knowing the charges against them.

One man whose house I stayed in multiple times was detained in May 2022, and his family has not had contact with him since. He is being detained in Mariona. I have gone to the embassy in Washington D.C. multiple times, from the first week he was detained to a couple months ago, to ask 3 questions:
1) What are the charges against him?
2) How can his family learn of the status of his health?
3) What is the course of action for an innocent Salvadoran citizen to take in order to be released?
The only response I have ever gotten was "Está con vida" - he is alive. They have not offered any further responses or assistance with his case.

While in El Salvador in June 2023, multiple women were detained in front of teenage volunteers visiting from the United States. One woman was the wife of the engineer working on the construction project with us. According to community members, her sister-in-law had not liked her and called the police to inaccurately report her, leading to her detention. When her husband went to the local police station to get her released, the police said she would be in prison for 30 years but they could release her in 2 years if they received $10,000. Obvious extortion, and highly unlikely the money would actually be connected to the legal outcomes in any way.

It is sad that, yet again, poor people are those whose rights are not guaranteed. They are those who were most terrorized by the gangs and are now being arrested alongside them. There must be a fair, transparent legal process for all Salvadoran citizens and there is nothing of the sort. Power to their families.