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Some things never change: repression and the militarization of public security in El Salvador

By Astrid Valencia & Diana Sánchez, for Amnesty International

5 October 2020, 13:04 UTC

With little more than a year passed since President Nayib Bukele took office, one thing has become crystal clear: the country is still trying to resolve its different historical problems through repression. President Bukele has yet to keep the promises he made at the start of his term in office and he simply seems to be continuing a repressive and militarized response, including in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few months, armed soldiers have, for example, been deployed to perform tasks related to containing the virus. These images only served to remind us of the terrible years of the armed conflict.

Indications of the government's repressive stance commenced gradually but increased rapidly. In February, just a few weeks before COVID-19 arrived in the country, we witnessed an ostentatious and unnecessary deployment of the police and military which burst into the facilities of the Legislative Assembly during an extraordinary session convened by the Council of Ministers and led by the President. There were reports of snipers stationed around the building and restrictions on press freedom that herald a dangerous and slippery slope for the future of human rights in the country.

In a meeting with Amnesty International in June 2019, President Bukele committed to implementing a comprehensive public security strategy that would, in theory, prioritize a prevention and rehabilitation approach. He further acknowledged the important work of Salvadoran civil society organizations and the role that human rights defenders play in the country.

Subsequently, in December 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the regional body responsible for monitoring the human rights situation, made an historic visit to the country. The IACHR returned after 32 years to make an in loco visit, the most important visit the Commission can make to a country. This visit also addressed concerns regarding the country’s security policy.

In its preliminary observations, the IACHR echoed the concerns of civil society organizations, such as the armed forces’ involvement in public security tasks and a lack of information, transparency, and participation on the part of organizations in the design of the Territorial Control Plan.

Over time, we have begun to see how the president’s promises have been broken one by one and how the government’s actions have actually moved in the opposite direction. While the government's agreement to the IACHR’s visit was an important step, it was not necessarily accompanied by a firm commitment that would go beyond the visit and result in a visible improvement in the lives of the Salvadoran people. The president’s pledge to Amnesty International to create an inter-ministerial roundtable has also remained mere lip service.

In light of these previous actions, the ensuing response to the pandemic hardly came as a surprise. In addition to the deployment of security, police and military forces, there have been multiple allegations of excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests. According to official figures, more than 16,000 people were quarantined in state custody, including those accused of breaking the national lockdown and people returning from overseas.

Amnesty International has spoken to people who were victims of human rights violations resulting from the government's measures to “control” COVID-19. These cases clearly show how the government’s measures implemented under the pretext of stopping the pandemic were disproportionate. One young man told the organization that the police stopped him as he went out to buy food and petrol, beat him up and shot him twice in the legs.

In another case, a 17-year-old boy was arrested by the police as he left his job on a sugar plantation. He and his family said that, regardless of the fact that his work was considered an essential activity, the police beat him up and took him to a police station where he remained imprisoned alongside adults for almost three days before being released without charge.

At the onset of the pandemic, the president publicly instructed the security forces to “be tougher” on those who did not comply with the quarantine, noting that he did not care about complaints of the authorities “bending wrists” or seizing vehicles. The Minister of Justice and Public Security also warned in April that people who violated the national lockdown would be sent to containment centres, “far from their families, and where they would also be at risk of contracting the virus”. This shows that the measures were designed and implemented as a form of punishment, quite apart from the purpose of protecting people from the virus.

Having witnessed this worrying scenario, the government will today have an opportunity to respond to concerns regarding its repressive path and the punitive measures prevailing in public policy during a hearing granted by the IACHR to Amnesty International and nine other national and international organizations. We hope that, during and after the hearing, this administration will not only listen carefully to the organizations but also address their concerns and correct its actions so that its security policy can become a comprehensive response that fulfils the commitment to protect the rights of everyone in El Salvador.

Astrid Valencia is a researcher for Central America and Diana Sánchez is a campaigner for Central America/Mexico at Amnesty International