Rights group: leaked data from El Salvador confirms abuses

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Human Rights Watch says it has obtained a database leaked from El Salvador’s government that confirms massive rule-of-law violations, severe prison overcrowding and deaths in custody under emergency powers imposed last March to face an increase in gang violence.

The global human rights organization said on Friday that the Public Security Ministry database shows details of around 50,000 people arrested between the implementation of the state of emergency in late March and the end of August.

A presidential spokesperson said they had not seen the report early Friday and had no comment.

El Salvador’s legislature approved the suspension of some basic rights after an outbreak of violence by the country’s powerful street gangs. People no longer need to be told why they are being arrested or what their rights are or given access to a lawyer. The government also suspended the right to organize.

Many of the abuses have previously been reported by Human Rights Watch and the local civil society organization Cristosal, but the government data added some details. It included the names of those arrested, their ages and genders, the charges they face, the prisons they were sent to and where they were arrested.

For example, among those arrested during the period were more than 1,000 minors who were sent to detention. In March, the country’s legislature lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 12 from 16 for gang-related crimes.

The database also pointed to staggering levels of overcrowding in El Salvador’s prisons. The government is building a massive new facility, but in the meantime more and more prisoners are being crammed into existing prisons while they await trial.

As of August, the prison population had grown to more than 86,000, while according to the authorities’ information in February 2021, they had a capacity of 30,000.

The government reported in November that 90 people had died in custody since March.

The most common charge those arrested face is “unlawful association”, which accounts for around 39,000 of the new cases. More than 8,000 are accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

“The use of these broadly defined crimes opens the door to arbitrary arrests of people with no relevant gang affiliation, and does little to ensure justice for violent gang abuses, such as murder and rape,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro recently said that no international organization is going to tell El Salvador how to solve its problems, and that the number of detentions shows that the strategy has been successful.

Violent crime has fallen dramatically across El Salvador, and the public has expressed broad support for the tough measures in opinion polls.

For years, gangs controlled parts of the country. They usually controlled who came and went from neighborhoods, including whether public services had access. The gangs also mercilessly squeezed out local businesses and aggressively recruited into their ranks.

The government reported 495 murders in 2022, the lowest number in decades. The government did not include at least 120 killings committed by security forces against alleged gang members. Still, that total pales in comparison to the 6,656 murders the country suffered in 2015.

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