Espiritu Santo Island -- a State of Exception story

17 inhabitants of Espiritu Santo Island, held in prisons under the State of Exception, awaiting trials in the distant future and without any contact with the outside world. 

Two years ago this week, when El Salvador's State of Exception had been in effect for two months, I wrote a post titled "Free the Boatmen."    It was a story about five boat operators and artesanal fishermen from Espiritu Santo Island along El Salvador's southeast Pacific coast, who had been arbitrarily arrested under the State of Exception. In the next year, twenty more members of this close-knit community would also be arrested and taken away in four additional operations through April 2023.

They were captured although everyone affirms that this island and its close-knit community have never harbored gang members or experienced gang-related crime.  Theirs is a story of the practice of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment which has characterized so much of the State of Exception in El Salvador.  

Chart from LPG  of the 25 captured islanders

Of the 25 captured, 17 remain locked up in Salvadoran prisons.  Eight have been released -- seven set free but subject to alternate measures to detention and still facing trial and lengthy prison sentences.  Only one has been declared innocent, a youth who was tried, sentenced, but then released after an appellate judge found the arresting officer had made up the story.

The youth was named Samuel.  He was 17 at the time.  An article in El Faro describes his arrest:

Around 7:30 that night, soldiers showed up to his house and ordered all the men outside, without explanation. Samuel, his father, his brother, and a brother-in-law who had stopped by for a visit all obediently lined up and faced the soldiers, who went through their identity documents one by one, until they reached Samuel, who didn’t have documents because he was a minor. They demanded his minor ID card, which [his mother] Virginia ran inside to grab and brought back out to the soldiers. Then they asked him to hand over his phone and took the boy inside to get it. “You’re coming with us,” they told him, and took him back out of the house wearing just his underwear, until his sister, after asking permission, put a shirt on him. Then the soldiers took him away and walked off down the dirt alley.    

After his arrest in July 2022, Samuel's case went to trial in October 2023. (His case went to trial faster than the vast majority of State of Exception cases because he was a minor).   Disregarding the fact that the testimony by the sergeant who arrested Samuel lacked any supporting proof and was contradicted by a local police officer, a judge summarily sentenced Samuel to ten years in prison.

But Samuel's mother Virginia and her neighbors on the island did not give up the fight for Samuel.   Three weeks later they took the unprecedented step of going to the prosecutor's office to swear out a complaint against the sergeant for giving false testimony. Then on December 13, 2023, an appeals court for juvenile cases actually overturned Samuel's conviction, rejecting the sergeant's testimony, and freeing Samuel of all charges.

Samuel's nightmare would last another two months.   Although he had been granted his freedom by court order on December 13, the prison system would not honor the order and return Samuel to his mother for another 62 days.

In total, Samuel spent 589 days illegally confined under El Salvador's State of Exception.  You can watch this video where Samuel and his mother Virginia speak after his return home:

El Faro also has this photo gallery of Virginia's 589 day fight to bring home her innocent son.

* * *

According to all who know the island, there has never been a gang presence on Espiritu Santo.  The island is a coconut plantation, run by a cooperative, with a single port where the military has checked all the comings and goings for years. Everyone knows everyone else, and the community is united in saying that none of those seized have anything to do with the gangs.

Journalist Jonathan Blitzer wrote of the island:

If you’re not one of the thirteen hundred residents of the island, you need permission to get there. On arrival, you must present your I.D., and the person you’re visiting has to vouch for you. This practice dates to the nineteen-eighties, when the country was in the midst of a civil war. Money from one of the island’s coconut coöperatives went toward collective security. Decades later, gang crime overtook towns nearby but never made it onto the island itself. “There aren’t walls, there isn’t barbed wire, and there’s no gang graffiti,” the reporter Carlos Martínez wrote in the news outlet El Faro. “No one can remember the last time someone was assassinated on the island.”

Samuel and the island community have been fortunate in one way.   They have had the support of a US/Salvadoran NGO named the Center for Interchange and Solidarity (the "CIS") and lawyers from Socorro Jurídico Humanitario.  The vast majority of persons arrested in poor communities throughout the country during the State of Exception have no such good fortune.  Most poor families, aided only by the overwhelmed lawyers of the public defender's office, face enormous odds in getting the judicial system to look at evidence of their loved ones' innocence. 

The efforts of the Espiritu Santo community have unearthed troubling malfeasance by those responsible for the imprisonment of their family members.  There is sergeant Angel Montesinos, who had so clearly made up his story about the arrest of Samuel and others, that the case against Samuel was thrown out.  Prosecutors are now investigating Montesinos.   The prosecutor (fiscal) in the case of the original five boatmen captured from the island has been charged with falsifying documents.  There is also the naval commander of the coastal region where Espiritu Santo is located, accused of blackmailing women for sexual favors by threatening arrests under the State of Exception of the women or their companions.  Unlike the vast majority of the more than 70 thousand persons arrested under the State of Exception, these men have been allowed to remain free while their cases are supposedly being investigated. 

The story so far of the fishermen, plantation workers, and day laborers of Espiritu Santo Island illustrates what happens when due process, the presumption of innocence and requirements of proof are removed from the criminal justice system.   Results are arbitrary and subject to the whims of corrupt members of security forces.  Some, like Samuel, might have the unusual luck to have a case reviewed by an appeals court judge with courage, but he still lost more than a year and a half of his young life stuck in Salvadoran prisons.  Most face years in prison without being tried and with the likelihood of justice highly uncertain.

Finally, everyone should watch this short documentary "La Isla" by filmmaker Amada Torruella about the impact of the arrests on these 25 families.    


Location of Espiritu Santo Island


Excellent write up Tim on the other side of the coin of the State of Exception and the nightmare for those who are arbitrarily arrested for being poor.