One year ago, on March 27, 2022, after a wave of homicides, President Nayib Bukele summoned the Legislative Assembly to approve an emergency decree for 30 days with the intention of reducing gang-related violence. Since then, the Legislative branch has extended the state of emergency (or state of exception) 12 times, enabling the suspension of constitutional guarantees, leading to human rights abuses perpetrated by state security forces -including the military- and deepening corruption.
In a country with little over 6 million people, more than 66,000 of them have been detained since the state of exception was declared. Of these, over 90 percent are being detained for prolonged periods of time under provisional detention, their cases having not been heard by a judge. According to the organization Cristosal, as of February 102 people had died in custody, in circumstances which authorities have yet to accurately investigate. Before the state of exception was put in place, the country’s penitentiary system had capacity for 30,000 people. With the onslaught of arrests, El Salvador has become the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and has since opened a new mega-prison named the Terrorism Confinement Center.
El Salvador is using what should be a temporary emergency measure as a long-term citizen security strategy that curtails constitutional rights and gives the state the power to carry out mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment, which has also resulted in death while in custody. This, added to irregular criminal proceedings, is of grave concern. The U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Human Rights Report for El Salvador, released on March 20, stated that significant human rights abuses have been committed, including: “Numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, invasion of homes, unfair judicial procedures, and deaths of detainees followed the declaration. More than 52,000 persons were arrested in the first six months of the state of exception, leading to allegations of overcrowding and inhuman treatment in the prisons.”
Punitive governance is particularly problematic as it has exacerbated the rapid deterioration of democracy in El Salvador. The state of emergency is being used to further the government’s campaign of restricting civic space, silencing opponents and independent media, and controlling the judiciary, and has led to the mismanagement of public funds and restrictions on access to public information without adhering to laws and protocols that regulate these two processes. While gang-related violence was impacting the daily lives of countless Salvadorans and victims of violence certainly deserve justice, maintaining public security policies based on the restriction of constitutional guarantees does not address the root causes of violence. Tough security policies also lead to human rights violations and are detrimental to democracy.
With the pre-electoral context in El Salvador already taking shape to unfairly tilt the playing field for the general elections, set to take place in February 2024, the state of El Salvador’s democracy is of increasing concern. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls on the international community, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to closely monitor the rapidly deteriorating situation of democracy and human rights in El Salvador, to take cohesive, coordinated actions to promote the end of the state of emergency and to call on the Bukele government to commit to the rule of law and democratic governance. Lastly, given the gravity of these abuses of power, the U.S., European Union, and other countries should consider imposing additional individual financial sanctions and conditions on foreign assistance and loans to prevent the complete consolidation of power in the hands of the executive branch. The exception can no longer be the rule.
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