Ruth Lopez Reviews the State of Emergency in El Salvador

“It has facilitated serious abuses against citizens”

“Those who are causing the most violations are the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces,” says this human rights defender of the Crisoltal organization.”

By Alejandra Padilla (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – On March 27, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly declared a state of emergency which suspended for 30 days the rights of freedom of association, assembly and privacy in communications, as well as several due process guarantees, after the government of President Nayib Bukele requested the measure to address an increase in gang violence.

Ruth Lopez, a human rights defender with the Salvadorean organization Cristobal, says the measure, now extended into May, “is too strong.”

“It affects all citizens in the country, when the State has all the necessary tools to be able to control violent situations,” assured the anticorruption director of Cristosal.

On April 24, the Assembly approved a new request by the Bukele Government to extend the state of emergency for 30 more days, under the argument that the conditions that led to violence persists. According to official figures, more than 20,000 people have been arrested since March 25, in many cases for the crime of belonging to “illicit groups.”

In an interview with the Esta Noche program, López pointed out that the state of emergency has facilitated serious abuses against citizens and their basic rights, such as the right to defense have been violated. “Those who are causing most violations are the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces.”

What does the state of emergency imposed in El Salvador consists of?

Our constitutional framework establishes in article 49 the possibility of enforcing a state of emergency in certain circumstances where there are major public disorders. However, it must be considered that our constitutional jurisprudence establishes, since the 90’s, that the increase of homicides does not constitute a cause to promote a state of emergency, because a state of emergency leads to the suspension of rights and the suspension of guarantees.

What human rights abuses and violations have you documented during the state of emergency?

There are many arbitrary detentions. One situation we are seeing is that when a person is detained, they are not told the reasons why they are being detained, therefore, they do not know the crime they are being charged with. Another situation is when no legal process is followed to challenge the arrest or when there is no evidence that a crime has been committed. They also do not present an arrest warrant. They have also been detained for not carrying their identity document, for having a photograph in their phone that the Police consider to be linked to gangs, or for having an artistic tattoo.

Who are the main perpetrators of these abuses, according to the testimonies you have received from victims, their relatives, lawyers, and civil society?

The National Civil Police and the Armed Forces are the main perpetrators. Also the judges because they do not take into consideration all the information presented to them, not so much because they do not have the capacity, but because they are overwhelmed. But mainly the Police and the Armed Forces.

How have you documented and corroborated these allegations?

We have done it through open sources. The other way has been through an exclusive platform for complaints on the state of emergency that Cristosal has enabled. People fill out a form where they leave their contact information so that the staff can contact them to verify the situation of their relative or the arbitrariness they want to denounce. Afterwards a verification process is carried out.

Do you have information on the conditions in which detainees are being held?

Some people who have already been released report overcrowding, acts of violence inside, but there is no way to verify. A problem we have faced is the lack of institutional protection because the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has not commented on any of the violations we have mentioned. There are people who have been directly affected by these arbitrary actions.

On social networks there is a debate among people commenting and endorsing the state of emergency, the discourse and the measures adopted by President Bukele, who considers that these people deserve such treatment. How is it seen from a human rights perspective?

The situation is complicated because Salvadoreans are really tired. We are tired of all the damage that gangs have caused. The violence situation that El Salvador experiences is a critical situation that is not new, it is a situation that over the years has not been controlled. But one thing is to establish repressive measures against crime and quite another to violate rights in general.

Human Rights Watch and Cristosal documented two cases of people detained during the state of emergency who died in custody and Salvadoran media outlets have informed on three additional cases. Have governmental authorities spoken out on these deaths?

There is no explanation from the government about these situations. This is extremely serious because these people are in custody of the Executive. One of the characteristics of Nayib Bukele’s Government is precisely not to refer to anything that may be uncomfortable or may be detrimental to the government’s image or that the citizens may notice is wrong. That is, whatever leads to any level of questioning.

The report also points out violations of due process against the accused. Which are those violations?

The Inter-American Court has ruled that there cannot be a suspension of the right to defense. However, this is not what is happening, because people cannot have a defense, even a public one, because the case is private. There are fellow lawyers who are being called upon not to defend gang members, when not all people who are being detained are gang members. This is one of the most serious situations, where people who have not committed a crime are being deprived of their freedom.

Is El Salvador experiencing a human rights crisis?

El Salvador has been experiencing a human rights crisis since the beginning of the pandemic. The handling of the pandemic in El Salvador was militarized, a handling based on the suspension of guarantees to prevent the movement of people. But, if we continue along, when the right to protest began to be exercised, this has also been limited by setting up police checkpoints. Freedom of expression has also been limited by restricting the right to information and a criminalization of journalistic activity. What journalists are experiencing in our country is extremely serious.

HAVANA TIMES – On March 27, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly declared a state of emergency which suspended for 30 days the rights of freedom of association, assembly and privacy in communications, as well as several due process guarantees, after the government of President Nayib Bukele requested the measure to address an increase in gang violence.

Ruth Lopez, a human rights defender with the Salvadorean organization Cristobal, says the measure, now extended into May, “is too strong.”

“It affects all citizens in the country, when the State has all the necessary tools to be able to control violent situations,” assured the anticorruption director of Cristosal.

On April 24, the Assembly approved a new request by the Bukele Government to extend the state of emergency for 30 more days, under the argument that the conditions that led to violence persists. According to official figures, more than 20,000 people have been arrested since March 25, in many cases for the crime of belonging to “illicit groups.”

In an interview with the Esta Noche program, López pointed out that the state of emergency has facilitated serious abuses against citizens and their basic rights, such as the right to defense have been violated. “Those who are causing most violations are the National Civil Police and the Armed Forces.”

What does the state of emergency imposed in El Salvador consists of?

Our constitutional framework establishes in article 49 the possibility of enforcing a state of emergency in certain circumstances where there are major public disorders. However, it must be considered that our constitutional jurisprudence establishes, since the 90’s, that the increase of homicides does not constitute a cause to promote a state of emergency, because a state of emergency leads to the suspension of rights and the suspension of guarantees.

What human rights abuses and violations have you documented during the state of emergency?

There are many arbitrary detentions. One situation we are seeing is that when a person is detained, they are not told the reasons why they are being detained, therefore, they do not know the crime they are being charged with. Another situation is when no legal process is followed to challenge the arrest or when there is no evidence that a crime has been committed. They also do not present an arrest warrant. They have also been detained for not carrying their identity document, for having a photograph in their phone that the Police consider to be linked to gangs, or for having an artistic tattoo.

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Who are the main perpetrators of these abuses, according to the testimonies you have received from victims, their relatives, lawyers, and civil society?

The National Civil Police and the Armed Forces are the main perpetrators. Also the judges because they do not take into consideration all the information presented to them, not so much because they do not have the capacity, but because they are overwhelmed. But mainly the Police and the Armed Forces.

How have you documented and corroborated these allegations?

We have done it through open sources. The other way has been through an exclusive platform for complaints on the state of emergency that Cristosal has enabled. People fill out a form where they leave their contact information so that the staff can contact them to verify the situation of their relative or the arbitrariness they want to denounce. Afterwards a verification process is carried out.

Do you have information on the conditions in which detainees are being held?

Some people who have already been released report overcrowding, acts of violence inside, but there is no way to verify. A problem we have faced is the lack of institutional protection because the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office has not commented on any of the violations we have mentioned. There are people who have been directly affected by these arbitrary actions.

On social networks there is a debate among people commenting and endorsing the state of emergency, the discourse and the measures adopted by President Bukele, who considers that these people deserve such treatment. How is it seen from a human rights perspective?

The situation is complicated because Salvadoreans are really tired. We are tired of all the damage that gangs have caused. The violence situation that El Salvador experiences is a critical situation that is not new, it is a situation that over the years has not been controlled. But one thing is to establish repressive measures against crime and quite another to violate rights in general.

Human Rights Watch and Cristosal documented two cases of people detained during the state of emergency who died in custody and Salvadoran media outlets have informed on three additional cases. Have governmental authorities spoken out on these deaths?

There is no explanation from the government about these situations. This is extremely serious because these people are in custody of the Executive. One of the characteristics of Nayib Bukele’s Government is precisely not to refer to anything that may be uncomfortable or may be detrimental to the government’s image or that the citizens may notice is wrong. That is, whatever leads to any level of questioning.

The report also points out violations of due process against the accused. Which are those violations?

The Inter-American Court has ruled that there cannot be a suspension of the right to defense. However, this is not what is happening, because people cannot have a defense, even a public one, because the case is private. There are fellow lawyers who are being called upon not to defend gang members, when not all people who are being detained are gang members. This is one of the most serious situations, where people who have not committed a crime are being deprived of their freedom.

Is El Salvador experiencing a human rights crisis?

El Salvador has been experiencing a human rights crisis since the beginning of the pandemic. The handling of the pandemic in El Salvador was militarized, a handling based on the suspension of guarantees to prevent the movement of people. But, if we continue along, when the right to protest began to be exercised, this has also been limited by setting up police checkpoints. Freedom of expression has also been limited by restricting the right to information and a criminalization of journalistic activity. What journalists are experiencing in our country is extremely serious.

Read more interviews here on Havana Times



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