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El Salvador: News & Updates

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. The US-backed civil war, which erupted after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, lasted 12 years (1980-92), killing 70,000 people and forcing 20% of the nation’s five million people to seek refuge in the US.

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Time and time again, journalists are victims of violence and repression in many Central American counties. In an effort to cut the freedom of the press, governments all over the continent have implemented laws to persecute critical media and shut down news outlets, as well as obstructing access to public information and stigmatizing individuals and outlets. But this repression is only one side of the sword. In many countries journalists and reporters are targets of threats, cyber attacks and even assassinations. This constant harassment and fear of being the next one killed or imprisoned has caused many to go into exile. 

In Honduras four reporters have been killed since the beginning of 2022, a trend that has been going on for decades. Between 2001 and today 98 killings of journalists were recorded. Such violent attacks and killings usually remain without any sentence or even conviction in Honduras, a fact criticized by many. The director of the Committee for Free Expression calls this lack of punishment "enormous impunity," and the Honduras National Human Rights Commission sees the media as a victim of "extreme violence." Besides the direct violence against journalists, the state threatens the freedom of expression with laws targeting reporters, journalists and news outlets. 

The exiling of reporters takes its most excessive form in Nicaragua, where nearly 200 journalists and reporters and others have gone into exile, 23 of whom were even stripped of their citizenship. As a legal rationalization, the Nicaraguan government declared these 23 individuals as traitors to the nation. In addition to the oppression of individual people, Nicaraguan authorities have taken over the daily La Prensa, the channel 100% Noticias, the two digital magazines Confidencial and Niu, and the television programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche. 

In Guatemala, criminal persecution is the most serious threat to the free press. In that country many journalists, reporters and other media personal have been jailed. Since President Alejandro Giammattei took office in January 2020, 12 journalists and reporters critical of him have gone into exile. 

In El Salvador violence against media personnel is a regularity.According to the  Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES), 611 cases of aggression against reporters and Journalists have been recorded since the election of President Nayib Bukele in 2019. Legal reforms in the country hindering reporters and journalists in their work have led the news outlet El Faro to move to Costa Rica in mid-April. Again and again repression has  caused reporters to leave the country.  Eleven individuals were forced to exit the country and 30 were spied on with the Pegasus software, provided by Israel. Between 2021 and 2022 the government has closed down three radio stations. 

Another country cutting freedom of  the press is Panama. Here the state regularly abuses its oppressive legal system against critics. Anti-slander, and personal data protection laws are being used by authorities to set up civil and criminal lawsuits against media outlets like La Pensa daily and the digital media site Foco. The fear of being sued, and charged with millions in fines or even prison time, leads to a climate of self-censorship within the media spectrum. 

Compared to the other countries mentioned above, Costa Rica is a relatively safe harbor. In the country no journalists are reported jailed or persecuted. But even here three critical media outlets were verbally attacked by government officials.

Though these grievances have been going on for decades, the situation hasn't improved. It is important that journalists, reporters and news outlets are able to do their work safely and without having to fear persecution. We call on all Central American nations to ensure a free press and freedom of speech.         


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to IRTF’s May 2023 newsletter on Migrant Justice and the current situation at the US-Mexico border! After you’ve looked through the articles, we hope you can take a couple of minutes to see the TAKE ACTION items at the bottom. The articles in this email version are abbreviated.

In this newsletter, please read about 1. Immigration Court in Cleveland, OH; 2. ICE Air Flights: Update on Removal Flight Trends; 3 .Labor Exploitation of Unaccompanied Minors: Congress is slow to act ; 4. New Protections for Immigrant Workers; 5. At the Border: Recent Incidents at and around the US-Mexico Border; 6. Effects of the end of T42 and DHS new plans for processing migrants. To read the full newsletter, see .


Here is what you can do to take action this week and act in solidarity with migrants and their families.

Tell Senator Sherrod Brown to take his name off Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s anti-asylum bill!

Bring Home Immigrants who’ve been deported from Ohio. 

Tell Congress to Protect Dreamers

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El Salvador's human rights violations may have consequences after all. The human rights organization Humanitarian Legal Aid (SJH) is preparing to sue the Salvadoran state on behalf of families whose relatives have been unlawfully arrested and have died in custody or after release. In its lawsuit, the SJH demands that the government of President Bukele take responsibility for all deaths in prison and after release, requests moral and material reparations for families affected, and demands "to clear the name of the innocent people."   

In an effort to collect info for the lawsuit, SJH has published a social media form in which victims and their relatives can confidentially share their experiences and data to support the case. According to SJH, the lawsuit will first be filed with the Salvadoran Attorney General's Office and its Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (PDDH). SJH further said that if the Salvadoran institutions do not respond, the lawsuit will be brought in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), based in Washington, DC.     

El Salvador has been in a 'state of exception', which takes away constitutional rights and allows police to arrest anyone on site, for over a year now. This crack down policy is part of Bukele's violent war on gangs which has seen at least 65,000 detentions and hundreds of death's. SJH director Ingrid Escobar has criticized the law and anti-gang efforts, stating that "According to criminologists, investigators and  lawyers, only 8 percent of the people who died belonged to gangs. The rest were innocent citizens who were stigmatized as terrorists.”

We are hopeful that this lawsuit may bring a glimpse of justice to those who have lost their innocent family members to the violent anti-gang war, though we know that no reparations will bring back loved ones. 

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On April 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), together with H0meland Security, arrested Roberto Antonio Garay Saravia. The former military commander is under investigation by Homeland Security for his participation in the Salvadoran El Mozote massacre in 1981, which saw the murder of at least a 1,000 people, including women and children. From 1981 to 1985 Garay Saravia was a section commander of a specialized counterinsurgency unit known as the Atlácatl Battalion. During his time as commander, Garay Saravia's unit committed numerous atrocities and was deployed in three further missions in which hundreds of civilians were killed. His arrest is surprising since the forces responsible for the massacre were trained by the US, and in most cases the perpetrators of these inhumane crimes are never persecuted.

After investigations by Homeland Security, Garay Saravia was charged with assisting or otherwise participating in extrajudicial killings and willfully misrepresenting this material fact in his immigration application. In a press release, DHS Deputy Secretary John K. Tien stated that “Individuals who have committed atrocities overseas will not find safe haven in the United States.”

Although we are deeply opposed to ICE, we welcome the fact that one of El Salvador's worst war criminals may finally be brought to justice. 

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'Systematic' human rights abuse. With these words the human rights organization Amnesty International has described El Salvador's anti-gang efforts in a report on April 3.

More than a year ago, the Salvadoran Bukele government has established a still ongoing "state of exception" in an effort to combat gang activities in the country. Since the first introduction, the state of exception, which only stays active for a month on a time, has been renewed 12 times, and with every additional month the devastating consequences of Bukele's strategy are worsening.      

According to Amnesty International, government security forces and the national judicial sector have committed wide spread human rights violations, such as mass arrests, torture, forced disappearances and the denial of a fair process. In the course of the last year, more than 66,000 individuals have been detained, many of whom not even having any gang affiliation. Furthermore, according to Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, at least 132 individuals have died in custody. Guevara-Rosas stated that, “The systematic violation of human rights and the dismantling of the rule of law are not the answer to the problems facing the country.”

Despite the international criticism, Bukele is holding on to his iron fist crack down strategy, and his popularity has only been surging since the implementation of the state of exception. Only a few months ago, the largest of Bukele's projects, a new mega-prison called "Terrorism Confinement Center" was finished. So far, the prison has a population of 4,000 despite having the capacity to hold up to 40,000 individuals, but this is believed to change soon. Proud of the arrest and the "Confinement Center," Bukele stated: “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population.”   

In their report Amnesty International condemns the reliance on imprisonment, with Guevara-Rosas saying that “The dehumanization that thousands of unjustly imprisoned people are suffering is intolerable.”

IRTF supports Amnesty International's denunciation of the Salvadoran anti-gang crackdown. We believe that the problem of gang violence can not be solved by more violence and imprisonment. We call for a solution that goes to the roots of the problem like poverty, ghettoization, the lack of future prospects for the youth, and one that actually protects the innocent population instead of criminalizing them.   

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Yesterday we reported on the ongoing gang crackdown under the state of exception in El Salvador, and its popularity. But so far, the Salvadoran prison infrastructure has been lacking capacity to keep pace with the mass arrests carried out in the name of national security. The latest official numbers of the Salvadoran prison population were published in April 2021, almost a year before the implementation of the state of exception. Back then El Salvador had a total prison population of 36,000 in its 29 facilities, an amount 20% over the holding capacity. One can only wonder how crowded the prisons must be after 64,000 additional arrests in the last year. 

With this in mind, President Nayib Bukele ordered the construction of a new, enormous complex with the capacity to hold up to 40,000 individuals, creating the largest prison in all of the Americas. Now, in early February Bukele presented the complete project. Each cell of the so-called "Terrorism Confinement Center" will be able to hold up to 100 inmates. Furthermore, it will have pitch black punishment cells, in which the prisoners are totally isolated and have to sleep on concrete. Besides these inhuman circumstances, the prison lacks any kind of education, traning or rehabilitation programs which could help lead inmates toward a lawful future. The absence of this much needed support structure leaves many no choice but to rejoin the gangs and creates a fertile breeding ground for further gang recruitment. 

Critics of Bukele's approach have stated that this strategy will not be able to hold up long term, as the country can't arrest and jail itself out of the structural social issues it faces. Bukele himself dismissed any critics of his strongman policy as defenders of gangs and praised himself, saying, “El Salvador has managed to go from being the world’s most dangerous country, to the safest country in the Americas. How did we do it? By putting criminals in jail. Is there space? There is now.” It is still unclear when the transition of prisoners to the new facility will start. 

So far the vast majority of the Salvadoran population stands in support of Bukele's crackdown policies. But as critics have pointed out, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of primarily young individuals will not solve the underlying issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of a future perspective, education and social services. And with prisons already being recruitment centers for gangs, it is likely that the approach  in the long term will do more harm than good--pouring oil on the fire that is organized gang criminality.  


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El Salvador has been in a state of exception for almost a year now. Since its implementation in March 2022, the government of President Nayib Bukele has massively cut civil rights. The policy allows security forces to arrest any individual without a warrant. Furthermore, the state of exception provides the government with full access to all private communications and severely weakens the right to legal defense in court. 

So far around 64,000 individuals have been arrested under the state of exception, leading to nearly 2% of the Salvadoran population being behind bars. With that El Salvador is now the country with the highest prison population in relation to national population, even surpassing that of the United States. Asked about the future plans to end the state of exception, the Salvadoran Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro stated that it will stay active until every criminal is captured. He estimated that 10,000 more arrests will have to be made in order to reach that goal. Furthermore, Villatoro declared that the Salvadoran border security forces will cooperate with Mexico, Guatemala and the United States to prevent any potential criminal from leaving the country as well as finding an unspecified number of gang members who already left the country. 

But the strategy seems to be effective. Official government statistics show that the amount of homicides has more than halved since the beginning of the state of exception and the crackdown on gangs. While in the year prior to the state of exception 1,147 killings were recorded, in 2022 the number fell to 495. But it is very unlikely that these numbers accurately reflect the situation in the country, as killings by security forces are excluded from the statistics and many murders are never recorded. Furthermore, extortions, one of core activities of Salvadoran gangs has fallen immensely. 

So far the state of exception seems to have lowered violence in El Salvador, an effect that is reflected by the popularity the strategy has in the population.  Surveys indicate that 92% of Salvadorans support the hard crackdown. Citizens stated that the act has allowed them to let their kids play on the streets, take walks and go shopping without fear. Further support comes from local business owners who were forced to pay "protection money" to gangs for years. And while the crackdown strategy gained popularity within the country, surrounding nations took notice. Honduras implemented a softer version of the crackdown strategy in December, and El Salvador has offered help Haiti in their struggle against organized crime.

But with the authoritarian strongman strategy in the name of national security comes a number of oppressive policies and a strong centralization of power towards President Bukele. During the state of exception, the anti-corruption legal body has been devolved and Bukele has stacked the highest court with loyalists. This strategic move did not only enable Bukele to be reelected but also allowed a law to be passed which prohibits journalists from writing about gangs in general. Besides the legal steps, Bukele has built up a network of paid trolls and loyalist fans to defend and support his policies online, as well as harassing and attacking his opposition and human rights defenders. 

Human Rights Watch and other human rights organization stand in strong opposition to Bukele's state of exception. So far, massive human rights violations have been reported, like violations in criminal processes, mass traias and minors being kept in overcrowded prisons.

The Salvadoran government denies all accusations of rights violations besides those allowed under the state of exception and Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro stated, "It doesn't interest us to convict anyone unjustly." 

It is yet to be seen how long the Salvadoran government will hold up the state of exception and how long civilians are willing to give up rights in return for safer streets. Especially Bukele's centralization efforts, matched with the human rights violations, is most concerning, as it could lead to another oppressive, one man dictatorship in Central America. 


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On behalf of IRTF’s Rapid Response Network (RRN) members, we wrote six letters this month to heads of state and other high-level officials in Colombia, El Salvador, and Honduras, urging their swift action in response to human rights abuses occurring in their countries.  We join with civil society groups in Latin America to: (1) protect people living under threat, (2) demand investigations into human rights crimes, (3) bring human rights criminals to justice.

IRTF’s Rapid Response Network (RRN) volunteers write six letters in response to urgent human rights cases each month. We send copies of these letters to US ambassadors, embassy human rights officers, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, regional representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and desk officers at the US State Department. To read the letters, see , or ask us to mail you hard copies.