State of emergency in El Salvador brings arbitrary detentions and violence
Carlos Herrera was arrested on Espíritu Santo Island in El Salvador on May 13. His family has been unable to contact him since.
Mr. Herrera is 21 years old. He had been working as a “lanchero,” a harbor ferry boat skipper, since he dropped out of high school, supporting his family by moving people and goods back and forth from the mainland and Espíritu Santo, an island in El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay in the southeast department of Usulután. Esperanza Pineda, Mr. Herrera’s aunt, described him as a fun-loving young man who is always making people laugh and teasing her by disheveling her hair.
He is one of the 22 men from Espíritu Santo Island who were arrested between May and July under President Nayib Bukele’s state of emergency decree, issued last March after a weekend of unprecedented gang violence left 87 people dead. The families of the men say they are not gang members or criminals and have been demanding that they be released.
Twenty-two men from Espíritu Santo Island who were arrested under President Nayib Bukele’s state of emergency decree in El Salvador.
The state of emergency suspended civil liberties like the right to legal counsel and family visits at detention sites. By the end of November, Human Rights Watch and the Salvadoran human rights organization Cristosal reported that Salvadoran security forces had arrested over 58,000 people—most of them accused of being gang members or collaborators with gangs.
The island with no gangs
Espíritu Santo Island, off the southern coast of El Salvador, is home to about 1,400 people. Most of the older residents moved to the island in the early 1980s, fleeing the country’s civil war. The main economic activities on Espíritu Santo are subsistence agriculture and fishing.
The Center for International Solidarity began an economic development program on the island in 1998, after Hurricane Mitch had savaged infrastructure across the country, disrupting the national economy. Leslie Schuld, C.I.S. director, said Espíritu Santo is one of the few places in El Salvador with no crime, gangs or violent homicides to trouble it. She attributes the peacefulness to the collective efforts of the island’s residents.
“The island has been organizing to take care of its own citizen-security for years,” she said. “The community petitioned [the government] for a police station to be built on the island 15 years ago.” And to get onto Espíritu Santo in the first place, “you need to show your ID and state your business,” Ms. Schuld said.
Espíritu Santo’s comparable immunity to the gang violence that is a plague to other Salvadoran communities makes the arrests here that much harder to understand, residents say.
There is no high school on Espíritu Santo. Young people who wish to continue their education after elementary school must travel by boat to nearby Puerto El Triunfo. C.I.S. started a scholarship program for those students in 2011 and another program for college-bound students in 2014, according to Ms. Schuld. The program supports 20 Espíritu Santo students. Sadly, some of the students have been forced to drop out because of threats from gang members in Puerto El Triunfo.
Espíritu Santo is one of the few places in El Salvador with no crime, gangs or violent homicides to trouble it.
Samuel Pérez has been the lanchero for the C.I.S. students since the scholarship program started. Ms. Schuld said parents preferred that Mr. Pérez take their children to Puerto El Triunfo because he was attentive to them and willing to wait for students when they had to stay late doing schoolwork.
Mr. Pérez was arrested while delivering a consignment of coconuts on the same day as Carlos Herrera. The island’s scholarship students have been deprived of a regular ferry skipper ever since.
Marta Pérez, Samuel’s sister, said the family moved to the island in 1982 because rebel guerrillas were trying to recruit her brothers into joining them in El Salvador’s civil war. She described Samuel as dynamic and friendly—someone everyone speaks highly of. He started off as a farmer, then he became a fisherman and eventually a bay lanchero, taking people to the port and delivering goods for convenience stores on the island.
According to Ms. Pérez, at the time of his arrest, police told her brother that he could expect a quick investigation and that if he were innocent of gang ties, he would be released within a day. More than seven months later, no one in his family has been able to see him or speak with him.
Every two weeks, Ms. Pérez travels to the prison in the capital of San Salvador where her brother is held. To reach it, she must take a boat from the island to the port and then a bus for over three hours. She has not been permitted to visit him, though the guards tell her that he is indeed still there. She says the state-of-emergency detentions have affected the morale of the people across the island.
Police told her brother that he could expect a quick investigation and release. More than seven months later, no one in his family has been able to see him or speak with him.
“When they took the 22 men, everyone in the island wept,” Ms. Pérez said. “Now we are afraid every time we see the police come. We don’t know whom they might take next.”
Majority support for a divisive policy?
Despite the suffering the decree has created for some, a recent opinion poll conducted by the University of Central America, a Jesuit university in San Salvador, found that 76 percent of Salvadorans supported the state of emergency.
Pamela, who asked that her real name not be used, has lived in Soyapango all her life. The city, long dominated by gangs, was recently sealed off by Salvadoran security forces in the largest military mobilization since the civil war. Thousands of troops poured into Soyapango on Dec. 3, blockading streets and arresting scores of presumed or suspected gang members.
Critics have charged that under Bukele’s decree, young men are being arrested merely because of their age, the way they dress or because their addresses are associated with gang-controlled communities or neighborhoods. But Pamela says she understands why people support the state of emergency despite such apparent abuses.
“There is a lot of hurt in my town,” she said, “and people have a right to feel safe and free. I remember when I was a little girl, I used to walk to school. But as I grew older, I could no longer do it because gangs started to control neighborhoods.”
Because of the emergency declaration and the arrests that followed, she said she is once again able to take walks with her mom on the streets of Soyapango.
But José Tojeira, S.J., pastor of El Carmen Church in the Salvadoran city of Santa Tecla and a long-time human rights defender, sees the state of emergency as contrary to the gospel. He believes the government’s focus on revenge instead of justice is counter to the gospel’s fundamental commandment to love our neighbors.
Despite the suffering the decree has created, a recent opinion poll found that 76 percent of Salvadorans supported the state of emergency.
“The government speaks of human rights violations as collateral damage [to the anti-gang crusade], effectively inciting people toward vengeance,” Father Tojeira said in an interview with America. The gospel calls us to pursue dialogue, he said, but the government has shut down that possibility.
“The state of emergency claims to defend the righteous from the wicked in a very simplistic division,” Father Tojeira said. “But the means used by the government are not means that are respectful of the human person. They are arbitrary and abusive means.
“Parading people in their underwear to stigmatize them, before they are judged, is about humiliating them, which is far from the spirit of the gospels,” Father Tojeira said.
The president’s emergency decree has raised concerns among other church leaders in El Salvador even as they have acknowledged the people’s approval of it. In a press conference in June, Archbishop José Escobar Alas of San Salvador said: “The people have expressed this acceptance in favor of the government because they are very hopeful that the situation of violence will be solved.” But he added his hope that the plight of the wrongly detained would be addressed. In July, Salvadoran Cardinal Greogorio Rosa asked for the state of emergency to be lifted because of the abuses committed while implementing it.
The director of U.C.A.’s Monsignor Romero Institute, Rodolfo Cardenal, S.J., has questioned Mr. Bukele’s claims that he is winning the war against gangs as an “instrument of God” and for “the glory of God.”
In a recent editorial, Father Cardenal wrote: “The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition abhors hate speech. He sent his Son to rescue sinners of all kinds, those despised by those who hold themselves in high esteem and righteousness. The god of Bukele and his religious advisors is not Christian, but another one, made to his measure and convenience to excuse his outrages.”
“If I could speak to President Bukele, I would first congratulate him for the good he’s doing. Then I would ask him to please investigate those he has arrested and to let the innocent go free.”
Father Tojeira said that at the pastoral level, priests are comforting families and victims of extrajudicial detentions and violence by police and national security forces, but he laments the lack of stronger, prophetic voices from the institutional church.
“In the church there is a cardinal virtue called prudence,” he said. “It has to do with wisdom. Unfortunately, throughout history, we have confused prudence with fear—fear that persecution against the church might increase for speaking out.
“We need to rethink our understanding of prudence in our churches,” Father Tojeira said.
Human Rights Watch and Cristosal released a joint report in December on abuses during the state of emergency. The report documents cases of large-scale, arbitrary detentions, torture and other abuses of detainees, including 90 deaths in custody.
Abraham Abrego, the director of strategic litigation at Cristosal, said the government has confused Salvadorans—equating supporting anti-gang efforts with supporting the state of emergency. But most Salvadorans do not support arbitrary detentions, he said.
“There’s a tendency in this country to think that you can’t fight crime and respect human rights,” Mr. Abrego said. “But a human rights approach strengthens the investigation process, while protecting vulnerable groups.”
The government has accused organizations like Cristosal of being defenders of the gangs. Mr. Abrego said he hopes those organizations will not be intimidated and will continue to document abuses.
Fighting to release the ‘Espíritu Santo 22’
C.I.S. hired a lawyer to support island residents who are fighting for the release of the 22 men arrested from Espíritu Santo. The lawyer has gathered documents—police background checks, arrest records and character statements from community members—and presented them in a recent court hearing. Instead of releasing the men, however, the judge ordered six more months of pretrial detention.
The state of emergency suspended civil liberties like the right to legal counsel and family visits at detention sites. By the end of November, Salvadoran security forces had arrested over 58,000 people.
According to Ms. Schuld, the judge said that although there was no proof of criminal activity, the men from Espíritu Santo had not shown family ties or proven they did not represent a flight risk—an assessment he reached despite residents like Marta presenting proof that her family has lived on the island for 40 years.
But C.I.S. and the island residents are not giving up. “We’re going to keep on fighting. We’re going to keep the pressure on,” Ms. Schuld said.
Each time there is a judicial hearing, family members must make a three-hour trip to the courthouse in San Miguel. Ms. Pineda, Carlos Herrera’s aunt, traveled to a hearing on Oct. 10 hoping for news of her nephew, but his attorney was the only person allowed into the court. Four harbor skippers arrested the same day as her nephew appeared via video conference, but “Carlitos,” as she calls him, was not among them. No explanation for his absence was provided to the family’s attorney.
In November a person that was released from the prison where Mr. Herrera is held came to the island to tell Ms. Pineda that her nephew was depressed and had suffered a dramatic weight loss. That former detainee, also arrested under the emergency decree, told Ms. Pineda that Mr. Herrera believed his family had forsaken him, having received no care packages from them, even though she often goes to the prison to ask about him.
The care packages are a way for relatives to show detainees support, but they are often also the only way many inmates can receive personal hygiene items and supplemental food supplies that will help them survive in Salvadoran jails. Ms. Pineda said she has become desperate to reach him, that she has sent packages worth over $100 to her nephew. She had to take out loans to pay for them.
“If I could speak to President Bukele, I would first congratulate him for the good he’s doing for the country,” Esperanza said. “Then I would ask him to please investigate those he has arrested and to let the innocent go free. I can say, with God as my witness, that Carlitos is not a gang member. I just want to know that he’s alive and healthy.”