A Glimpse into El Salvador's ’state of exception‘

Illustration made by Global Voices.

The administration of El Salvador's president Nayib Bukele has been marked by the adoption of measures that restrict citizens’ fundamental freedoms, censor open and inclusive debate on public matters, and limit freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Additionally, there has been excessive interference in the regular functioning of state bodies. This situation worsened in March 2022 with the declaration of a state of emergency, initially for one month, but periodically extended until May 25, 2024.

How is the state of emergency experienced in El Salvador? What has been its impact on the population and the institutional handling of human rights?

The victims continue to wait for reparations

In 2019, the presidential campaign of the now-elected president was marked by a discourse replete with promises of effective solutions to some of the country's socio-political problems. This included a comprehensive agenda focused on the continuity of the transitional justice process underway in the country, intending to hold accountable those responsible for the gross human rights violations, providing reparations to the victims, and elucidating the truth of what happened between 1980 and 1992, a period in which the state was immersed in a complex internal armed conflict that left a death toll of over 75,000 civilians at the hands of the army and paramilitary forces.

Despite these promises, none of these measures have materialized since the president took office. Survivors and their families continue to struggle for recognition, justice, and reparations.

Furthermore, the implementation of permanent and regressive legal reforms related to human rights has unleashed an alarming crisis characterized by abuses and the excessive use of violence by authorities. Over the past few years, there have been numerous reports of cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners, deaths in state custody, judicial harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, and a lack of investigation to identify the perpetrators of these atrocities and determine the whereabouts of the victims of such abuses.

Read more: Why most Salvadorans want Bukele's re-election despite his growing authoritarianism

In response to this complex situation, various local organizations have expressed concern, stating that, despite the state of exception not meeting the requirements demanded by international standards, it has been continuously extended for two years to achieve a single objective: the eradication of gangs and organized crime.

The Bukele administration has also had a disproportionate impact on individuals living in poverty, particularly those with low levels of education, precarious employment, and residing in areas stigmatized by social exclusion or the control of armed groups.

Legal frameworks that seemingly legitimize the restriction of certain rights and judicial guarantees have also impacted journalists, independent media outlets, activists, human rights defenders, and union leaders.

Read more: Nayib Bukele wins the elections in El Salvador and authoritarianism advances through the continent

Crises in prisons

El Salvador faces a major challenge with its severe public security crisis, which arises from the ongoing conflict between the authorities and local gangs competing for control of drug trafficking and distribution.

On March 26, 2022, the country reached a record  of 62 murders in a single day, following months of relatively declining levels of violence by the “maras,” the name given to the criminal organizations operating in Salvadoran territory. In response, President Bukele made the drastic decision to declare a state of national emergency, providing a pretext for the restriction of certain constitutional liberties.

This decision has led to the adoption of a predominantly punitive approach to addressing insecurity and crime, particularly that related to criminal groups. Mass arrests and imprisonments have been implemented, on top of the precarious conditions in prisons, resulting in alarming levels of overcrowding.

The deplorable conditions faced by incarcerated individuals in the country are particularly concerning. These include extreme overcrowding, negligent medical attention, inadequate food, restrictions on access to potable water, lack of contact with the outside world due to suspended visits and calls, poor sanitation and hygiene, mistreatment including beatings and the use of pepper spray, and the excessive use of solitary confinement as punishment.

Curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms

A significant number of government policies represent a setback in terms of human rights. Civil society sectors have documented a sustained increase in actions that undermine freedom of expression and association. The primary victims of these actions have been journalists, activists, trade unionists, and community leaders, creating an atmosphere of hostility for the exercise of these fundamental rights.

There was also a surge in stigmatizing rhetoric directed at human rights defenders, correspondents, and independent media outlets. These discourses emanated from the highest levels of government, with officials inappropriately utilizing state resources and methods to extend their intimidation and restrictions into the virtual realm.

Various social groups, victims’ movements, unions, and community leaders have organized social demonstrations and protests to denounce human rights violations under the state of emergency and to demand respect for economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as the defense of land. Authorities responded by interfering in the exercise of this right, restricting freedom of movement through blockades or controls to impede citizen participation. 

Read more: President Bukele harasses independent journalists on Twitter in El Salvador

There has also been a shift in the National Civil Police's approach to peaceful protests. In the past, this institution focused on protecting and facilitating the exercise of these fundamental rights. However, currently, there is a trend orienting the police role towards intimidating, surveilling, and ultimately, frustrating the participation of people in this type of collective action. Even more concerning is the increase in criminal or administrative actions against individuals who participate in protests, especially those called and led by trade union organizations in defense of the labor rights of their members.

In short, the complex situation facing this Central American country highlights the urgent need to adopt a series of public policies with a human rights focus. As various human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Cristosal, have affirmed in their reports on the human rights situation in El Salvador, the authorities must undertake comprehensive legal reforms in consultation with civil society organizations that prioritize social rehabilitation and reintegration instead of the current punitive approach. It is crucial to strengthen judicial independence and guarantee due process for all citizens. Additionally, El Salvador must promote transparency and accountability of the security forces to build public trust.

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