El Salvador’s Prison Lockdowns: Extreme and Dangerous Measures


At first it appeared that the COVID-19 pandemic, though alarming, could bring about an unexpected reduction in homicides to El Salvador. Yet, at the end of April, El Salvador’s homicide rate seemed to suddenly spike without explanation. President Nayib Bukele quickly attributed the homicides to El Salvador’s infamous gangs and ordered an immediate and complete 24-hour prison lockdown; including authorizing police and military forces to use lethal force “in self-defense or in defense of the lives of Salvadorans.” In response, the Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IACHR) and other human rights advocates have warned that President Nayib Bukele’s 'eye for an eye approach' to gang violence, could trigger an increase in human rights abuses both within and outside of prisons. 

Between April 24 and 29th, El Salvador recorded over 70 homicides across the country.  The previous year, El Salvador had seen some of the lowest rates of homicides in years, though they still remained among the highest in the region. Since Bukele took office in June 2019, homicide rates plummeted at the same time that the country’s military and police budget saw historic increases. This sudden reduction of homicides was, according to the executive government, a result of President Bukele’s “Territorial Control Plan,” which some critics have decried as a near-carbon copy of previously-implemented iron fist policies - with a millennial twist.

According to a recent article by Insight Crime, last year’s drop in homicides may be a result of negotiations between gangs and the government. This would not be the first time the administration has been accused of negotiating with the gangs, nor the first administration to come under such scrutiny. In addition to this speculated explanation for the reported drop in homicide rates, it's important to consider changes to the way the official homicide tally is determined. Less than two months after president Bukele took office,  it was reported "that the homicides registered in the country will no longer include victims of alleged confrontations between security forces and suspected gang members, nor those found dead and buried in graves."

On April 25, the administration's Press Secretary published a series of graphic images on Twitter aimed at illustrating the administration’s response to the sudden rise in killings. The images depicted prisoners closely packed together wearing nothing but their underwear and only some wearing protective face masks. As part of the prison lockdown that Bukele had ordered the day before, the administration also began mixing Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) detainees in the same cells, ending the long-time practice of keeping rival gangs apart to prevent bloodshed within the confines of the prisons. Additionally, prison cells have been boarded up with metal planks, leaving detainees in complete darkness, some with their rival gang members, in order to "prevent detainees from communicating with each other."

In response to these actions, Human Rights Ombudsman José Apolonio Tobar expressed, “If these conditions are originating from within the prisons, it is evidence that the penitentiary systems is not under control - that the government is not fulfilling its role in controlling people who are in prison [or] of controlling the phone signals [in and out of the prisons] and the illegal introduction of technological apparatus.” When asked about President Bukele’s statement presumptively calling on police and military to use lethal force against gang members, Tobar stated, “What the President has said is not an authorization because he has no powers to do so.”

At the international level, human rights advocates have been vocal about their discontent with the administration’s extreme measures. Director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, José Miguel Vivanco, responded, “Bukele's order is extremely serious because it could be interpreted by security forces as a blank check to encourage them to execute gang members.” He further added, “El Salvador has legislation on the use of force... These documents, like the international standards on the matter, are clear: the security forces can only use firearms for lethal purposes to prevent a threat to life or physical integrity and only when strictly necessary. Failure to comply with these criteria can lead to extrajudicial executions and other serious abuses by the security forces.”

Similarly, Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville declared in a statement, “States have the duty to protect inmates’ physical and mental health and well-being, as set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules).” He added, “In El Salvador, extremely harsh security measures were recently imposed in prisons which could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and could also exacerbate the already precarious hygiene conditions.”

In the US, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have expressed their concern. In a letter to President Bukele, Representatives Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Albio Sires, Chair of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, condemned the administration’s actions, writing, "We understand the need to stop gang violence in El Salvador and to hold the masterminds behind all homicides responsible. At the same time, we believe that combatting organized crime must be done in a manner that upholds international norms and does not contribute to the spread of illness.”

President Bukele, known for decrying criticism from anyone, including from the international human rights community, responded to these denouncements, calling his critics “defenders of terrorism” and of those who “rape, kidnap, kill and butcher.” 

This is not the first time that international voices have made strong pronouncements against Bukele’s growing authoritarianism. On February 9, Bukele militarized the Legislative Assembly in a bout to force Legislators to approve a $109 million loan for his “Territorial Control Plan,” in which he planned to modernize police and armed forces with new surveillance equipment, such as facial recognition and drones.

As COVID-19 grips the country, it is likely that criminal networks that rely on systems of extortion will begin to feel the economic impact of the shelter in place policies. Yet, beyond making the country feel safer for Salvadorans during a global pandemic and pending economic depression, the government's iron fist policies are likely to result in more repression, trauma and death in a nation already ravaged by poverty and inequality.

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