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El Salvador: The institutionalization of human rights violations after two years of emergency rule

Two years after declaring a state of emergency, a measure that is considered extraordinary and temporary, and implementing a series of amendments to criminal law that undermine the presumption of innocence and the right to defense, among other guarantees of due process, the government of El Salvador continues to ignore its international human rights obligations by maintaining these measures as the mainstay of its security strategy.

"Reducing gang violence by replacing it with state violence cannot be a success." Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International

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.

Added to this is the precariousness and increased risk faced by human rights defenders and any dissident or critical voice in this context, as they are criminalized under the state of emergency. Local organizations currently report 34 cases of this nature, the latest being that of Verónica Delgado, a mother searching for her missing daughter, who was arrested on 11 March 2024.

"The international community must respond in a robust, articulate and forceful manner, condemning any model of public security that is based on human rights violations."

Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International

Unfortunately, the pattern of minimization, concealment, delegitimization and denial adopted by the government of El Salvador in response to the allegations made by national and international actors regarding the serious violations documented in the country suggests that president Bukele’s second term in office could see a deepening of the crisis witnessed over recent years. If this course is not corrected, the instrumentalization of the criminal process and the establishment of a policy of torture in the prison system could persist, leading to an increase in the already alarming figures of due process violations, deaths in state custody and the precarious situation of persons deprived of their liberty.

“In the absence of any kind of evaluation and checks and balances within the country, and with only a timid response from the international community, the false illusion has been created that president Bukele has found the magic formula to solve the very complex problems of violence and criminality in a seemingly simple way. But reducing gang violence by replacing it with state violence cannot be a success. The authorities in El Salvador must focus the state response on comprehensive policies that respect human rights and seek long-term solutions,” said Ana Piquer.

“The international community must respond in a robust, articulate and forceful manner, condemning any model of public security that is based on human rights violations.”