Human rights, social movement groups denounce repression under State of Exception

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On March 27, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved President Bukele’s request to declare a thirty-day State of Exception in the wake of a horrific wave of homicides on March 24-26. Subsequently, the Legislative Assembly approved a raft of reforms to the penal code, the Gang Prohibition Law, and other laws to impose even harsher sentences on alleged gang members, including minors, and those accused of negotiating or associating with them or even reproducing any statement made by them in the media.

Human rights experts, journalists and social movement organizations have been strongly denouncing the government's repressive response to the violence, including mass raids that have resulted in over 6,000 people being arrested and held without charges, and, more broadly, the threats it poses to democracy. Here we share excerpts from important analysis coming from El Salvador (translations by CISPES):

Celia Medrano, attorney and human rights expert, on Democracy Now!:
“This is a narrative typical of authoritarian governments, which try to deceive us and convince us that violating the human rights of others is the only thing that guarantees that some good Salvadorans can live in peace.”

Equipo Maíz, publisher and popular education organization:
“Despite the fact that the government says that these measures are only for 'terrorist' gang members and that no one should feel threatened, military personnel--who are authorized to act on suspicion alone--are combing through poor communities and neighborhoods, searching the pockets of students, and mass arresting real or suspected gang members.”

Zaira Navas, specialist in rights of children and adolescents, quoted in La Prensa Gráfica:
“[According to Zaira Navas] … children and adolescents are living in ‘a state of fear.’ Armed police and military taking over neighborhoods and violently entering houses … ‘is really terrifying for children. It affects their physical, psychological, and emotional well-being, and it will have long-term impacts, because the image they will remember is the military and the police searching them, recording them, telling them to take off their shirts or pull down their pants.’

“[Furthermore,] the State’s violation of rights is not occurring in high-income areas. 'We are not going to see police and military personnel searching girls and boys who attend [private international] schools. We have not seen barricades in Santa Elena. We have not seen barricades in gated communities.’”

Comite de Familiares de Presos y Presas Políticas de El Salvador, COFAPPES (Committee of Family Members of Political Prisoners of El Salvador): 
“We view with deep concern the State of Exception decreed by Nayib Bukele, which suspends important constitutional guarantees and leaves to his discretion - not to a judicial body - the arbitrary arrests of anyone who demonstrates opposition to the government. This will also be used to repress any public protests….

“[As for our family members who are political prisoners] …being locked up without access to sunlight, air and adequate nutrition are forms of torture that clearly violate international human rights treaties to which El Salvador is a signatory.

“We make a call to the international community and to the diplomatic corps accredited in El Salvador to denounce within their countries the severe democratic rollbacks that are occurring in El Salvador.”

Bloque de Resistencia y Rebeldía Popular (Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc), coalition of social movement organizations:
“For three years, Nayib Bukele has been playing with the security and fear of the Salvadoran people in order to secure financial resources and bolster his image. Let’s remember that funding for the Territorial Control Plan was the justification for the military takeover of the Legislative Assembly on February 9, 2020.

“The State of Exception is an instrument of repression and social control, which limits the Constitutional rights of association/assembly, defense, and inviolability of correspondence and telecommunications, and extends the period of provisional detention. It is a tool to criminalize the opposition that has been organizing against the dictatorship. It does nothing to stop the wave of murders. The famous ‘Territorial Control Plan’ is just a propaganda slogan.” (Read English translation of full March 28 statement here.)

"The Bukele administration already has sufficient power and legal tools to combat criminal groups; therefore, the State of Exception is an unconscionable action that only seeks to strengthen the authoritarian project of the Bukele clan at the expense of suppressing the Constitutional guarantees of the entire population.

Likewise, the excessive and unnecessary increase in military spending on defense and public security is unjustified. While the government allocates millions of dollars to purchase weapons, armored vehicles, and official propaganda, it sacrifices the pensions of thousands of senior citizens and war veterans, reduces the budget of the University of El Salvador, completely abandons many municipalities, and closes social programs that would help to provide a sustainable solution to the problem of crime." (Statement from April 7, 2022)

Asociacion de Radiodifusion Participativa de El Salvador, ARPAS (Participatory Radio Association of El Salvador), community radio and information network:
“The military and police offensive that the government has maintained for a week against one of the principal gangs is accompanied by a discourse that discredits and stigmatizes any person or organization that criticizes the lack of real public security policies or that denounces the abuses and illegal actions that are being committed under the banner of the ‘war on gangs.’

“Organizations like CRISTOSAL, the Foundation for the Study and Application of the Law (FESPAD), the Due Process of Law Foundation, the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America (IDHUCA) and others have been slandered and attacked on social media. President Bukele himself has called the Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IACHR) ‘gang defenders.’

“According to this misleading rhetoric, [human rights organizations and those advocating for the rule of law] use the discourse of human rights to ‘defend the gangs.’ However, reality points in another direction: substantiated facts indicate that who is protecting gang members is the very government that claims to be fighting them. … [Note: There has been extensive reporting on negotiations between the Bukele administration and gangs, which the administration denies]

“Instead of spreading false narratives and discrediting civil society organizations, Bukele and his government should call for dialogue on security, renounce mafia deals with criminal groups, implement real public policies, and address the structural causes of violence.”

Cristosal and other civil society/human rights organizations issued an early report on abuse of authority occurring under the State of Exception:
“Violence in the country has different structural causes and that it is perpetrated by multiple actors, that must be addressed responsibly by the State, guaranteeing the protection of all its people by adopting public policies based on respect for human dignity, comprehensive reparations for victims and due process.

“[T]he state of exception deepens the essentially repressive response of the State, and, from the point of view of the organizations, it is, in fact, a policy of police abuse on the streets, especially in poor and vulnerable communities.

“[Denouncements of incidents of abuse of authority that have been collected by three human rights organizations during the first week of the State of Exception] reflect that most of the victims have been victims of the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Armed Forces of El Salvador.”

Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador, APES, Salvadoran journalists’ association:
“On April 5, the Executive branch and the Legislative Assembly presented reforms to the Gang Prohibition Law and to the penal code that penalize with up to 15 years in prison ‘any type of written manifestation that alludes to gangs,’ including ‘text, painting, drawings, or graffiti’ and especially ‘those that have the purpose of alluding to territorial control of such groups.’

“The approved reforms also cover radio, television, written, and digital media that ‘reproduce and transmit messages or other releases that originate or are presumed to have originated from said criminal groups.’ In other words, it threatens to imprison those media organizations and journalists who report on a reality that the current administration, obsessed with propaganda and misrepresentation, seeks to hide.

“As APES, we consider these reforms to be a clear attempt to censor the media. Prohibiting journalism from reporting on the reality of thousands of people living in gang-controlled communities will not produce any effect on those people's lives, but will only create a mirage that does not reflect the truth. Not mentioning gangs will not make them go away, either.  …

“It is not difficult to see that the government's response, through the censorship that the new reforms entail, is seeking to portray journalism and journalists associations as ‘defenders’ of the gangs, just as it has done with organizations that demand respect for the rule of law. A crude and trite response is nonetheless dangerous for freedom of expression in El Salvador.

“These gag reforms are a new tool to criminalize journalistic work, an alarming trend that APES has been pointing out. This is on top of digital undercover agents, the scandal of spying on journalists with Pegasus software, false accusations against journalists for alleged crimes, and, currently, to the lack of privacy guarantees for communications with the approval of the State of Exception.”

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