• Controversy Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who militarizes El Salvador under a perpetual regime of exception
  • Profile Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who militarizes El Salvador under a perpetual regime of exception

The soldiers break into the house and take away a 50-year-old woman: "It's for a normal check-up, she's coming back." He never came back. She died in a prison in El Salvador after being detained under the emergency regime approved on March 27, 2022, which limits rights to the population with the excuse of the war against gangs promoted by President Nayib Bukele. The arrested woman had a liver disease, so her family took her medication to jail, although they were never received. When her relatives asked about her, the guards replied that "if she needs medication, the doctor will let her know." They only called them to announce her death from severe pneumonia without even having been tried.

This is one of 153 deaths in El Salvador's prisons between March 2022 and April of this year, which have been documented by the human rights organization Cristosal in a devastating report in which it denounces that those imprisoned suffer systematic torture, electric shocks and arbitrary detentions. According to the investigation, at least 28 people died violently due to torture, beatings, mechanical asphyxiation by strangulation and injuries, among other causes, which were documented by the same Institute of Legal Medicine (IML). In addition, in other cases Cristosal has verified photographs of the corpses that show signs of violence, while noting that "none of the deceased had been convicted of the crime attributed to them at the time of arrest."

Specifically, it details that the bodies presented lacerations, bruises that show blows, wounds with sharp or blunt objects, strangulation and hanging, among others. It indicates that several of the bodies "present evidence that the person was the victim of beatings and probably torture," with one of the most frequent causes of death described in the IML reports being mechanical asphyxiation. Thus, Cristosal recalls that mechanical asphyxiation or by immersion is one of the most common torture methods known in El Salvador, practiced between 1970-1992 by security forces during the armed conflict.

One of the documented cases is a 32-year-old man who, according to the IML, died from "severe blunt chest trauma" (blows to the abdomen). According to Cristosal, his body had moderately deep lacerations on the elbow, eight bruises on different parts of the body and a vertical wound of eight centimeters on the left side of the head. At the time of his arrest, according to this organization, he was beaten by police. On the other hand, the body of a 23-year-old man, who died on April 18, 2022, "showed signs of blows in several parts of the body, breaks in the feet and hands and sores on the back in an elongated burn-like shape, which shows that he could have been a victim of torture", although the body was delivered to the family in a closed coffin and the IML determined that it was "sudden death".

Cristosal censures that when detainees die in hospitals, relatives are given a death certificate containing the cause of death and "it is almost always stated that it was death due to a disease or chronic health condition, although most people entered the prison system without previous ailments. ". Thus, it indicates that in the greatest number of cases is recorded as a consequence of death "pulmonary edema, pneumonia, renal failure, infarction, anemia, cerebral hemorrhage and tuberculosis, among others."

However, in the absence of information on the results of autopsies and the type of medical care provided, the organization considers that "there are sufficient elements to presume that some of these deaths were preceded by violence, lack of medical assistance and attention, provision of medicines or medical negligence ". It also considers that even these diseases or chronic conditions could be acquired or worsened "as a result of torture, beatings and cruel and inhuman treatment (prolonged confinement in punishment cells), lack of food, water for consumption and minimum conditions to make physiological needs".

One of the cases concerns a 44-year-old man who did not suffer from any type of illness at the time of capture and who, after being held for four months, initially in Mariona and then in the Quezaltepeque Prison, died in the hospital where he remained admitted for a month. The obituary issued by the IML says that he died of "pneumonia" but, according to Cristosal, "his body had sores and he lost a lot of weight. The people interviewed said that he had been a robust person and that now "he was unrecognizable".

On the other hand, the report has documented four cases of people who were buried in mass graves, so their relatives learned of their death from third parties or through the social networks of relatives of prisoners. One of them was a 45-year-old man with intellectual disability, whose legal medical examination established that he died as a result of "pulmonary edema", although "forensic photographs show that the body had edema on the face". In that sense, people interviewed reported that "he was beaten inside the prison where he was held, he received kicks in the stomach that caused him to expel blood through his nose and mouth, which caused him to lose mobility and could not eat," despite which "he did not receive medical attention."

Although only four women died during the deprivation of liberty by the emergency regime, the testimonies of many women who have been detained refer, according to this organization, that "they saw several women die inside the detention centers and witnessed abortions caused by negligence and abuses of authority."

Beatings and electric shocks

Cristosal also denounces that corporal punishment and beatings are "widespread practices" in prisons designated for the detention of people detained during the emergency regime. It details that these practices consist of beatings at the time of the count of the prisoners by their guards who every day take them out of the cells and beat them with their batons, while kicking and punching them.

"They also do it when the inmates complain or make noise, in these cases they also spray pepper spray or take them out of the cells during the night to beat them," he adds. According to the testimony of a 20-year-old who was held in Mariona, a guard told them that "only if they are lucky will they get out of here alive." While they were kneeling on the ground, as he revealed, "they put electric shocks on them and one even had blood drawn and when they entered the sector where the guards were going to be they gave them another beating."

Another man imprisoned in Mariona recounts that while they were being taken to their cell with batons, the guards warned them that "they would never see the sun again", while every day they threw gas at them at dawn and gave them only a meal time. Former prisoners say that in cells with capacity for 70 people, the number sometimes reached 250 or more.

According to the testimonies of people who were held in the prisons of Mariona, Izalco and Quezaltepeque and who were collected by Cristosal, "there are executions inside the prisons, but nobody talks about it because they are afraid; In some cases it is presumed that they are hitmen, but it is also claimed that many die as a result of beatings, blows and electric shocks caused by the guards." Thus, a man who was held in Mariona reveals that he saw 10 people die asphyxiated, while in the cells opposite he saw that "other people died because the guards killed them."

During the emergency regime, 69,000 people have been detained, many of whom in an "arbitrary" manner, according to Cristosal, who denounces that they occurred "without administrative or judicial arrest warrants without prior investigation, for anonymous complaints or for stigmatization for wearing tattoos." He points out that mass arrests carried out under the regime's umbrella are "widespread" and many of the people do not even belong to or have links to the gangs. In numerous complaints, the affected families testify that the captors use phrases such as 'they are orders from the president' or 'we already know that he is not doing anything, but they are orders'. According to the government, of the total number of people detained, 5,000 have been released because they are not linked to gangs.

New 'offensive' against gangs

Despite all these complaints, Bukele does not have the slightest intention of reversing the aforementioned regime approved in the Legislative Assembly after registering 87 violent deaths between March 25 and 27, 2022 attributed to gangs. This translates into the suspension of constitutional guarantees of freedom of association and assembly, right of defence and inviolability of correspondence and telecommunications. Until this regulation came into force, which on May 16 was extended for the fourteenth time, administrative detention was set at a maximum of 72 hours and with the exception regime can be extended to 15 days.

Bukele stressed last Sunday that "we are decisively winning the war against the gangs," despite which he advanced a new "offensive against the remnants of these structures to prevent any attempt at regrouping." The president made this announcement after on May 16, gang members killed a police officer in Nueva Concepcion, prompting the president to order a siege with 5,000 soldiers and 500 police in this city of 30,000 inhabitants, 80 kilometers north of San Salvador. The result was the arrest of the three alleged perpetrators of the crime belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha, one of whom was arrested in Guatemala where he had tried to flee.

The two largest gangs operating in El Salvador (Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18) are estimated to have around 70,000 members. They broke into this country in the 90s after originating in Los Angeles and, according to Bukele, have caused 120,000 deaths in the last 30 years. On Monday, former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes (14-2009) was sentenced to 2014 years in prison for the crimes of illicit groups (eight years) and breach of duty (six years) for negotiating a truce with the gangs that meant prison benefits for their leaders between 2012 and 2014. Likewise, the former Minister of Justice and Security, David Munguía, received an 18-year prison sentence, according to the Attorney General's Office.

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