Repression in El Salvador and fears of arbitrary arrests

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LA LIMONERA, El Salvador — Esmeralda Domínguez was about 100 meters from her home when soldiers and police blocked her on a small bridge. The authorities had waited there for hours. Dominguez, neighbors said, was the only person they arrested.

Her aunt, who lived nearby, protested. Dominguez was not a criminal, she insisted, denouncing the community organizations her niece led or was involved in. It didn’t matter.

“We know what we are doing,” a soldier told the aunt before loading the young woman into a truck. He snarled, leaving his black motorbike by the side of the road.

It was April 19. No one in her family has seen her since.

Over the past 10 weeks, Salvadoran security forces have arrested more than 36,000 people since Congress granted President Nayib Bukele the power to suspend certain civil liberties to prosecute powerful street gangs. Lawmakers extended those powers for another 30 days last week as public opinion polls showed broad popular support.

However, a growing number of arrests – like that of Dominguez – appear arbitrary or unjustified, according to human rights groups.

Cristosal, a non-governmental organization, has documented more than 500 cases of arbitrary arrests since the imposition of the state of emergency on March 27, according to its director Noah Bullock. Amnesty International said on Thursday that its investigators had discovered that thousands of people had been arrested without the legal conditions being met.

Bukele called for expanded powers after street gangs in El Salvador killed dozens of people in late March. Two weeks into the mass detentions, the president acknowledged there could be a “mistake” of 1% of those arrested with no connection to the gangs. Even that seemingly low number suggests authorities are not making arrests based on investigations, critics say. His office declined to comment.

Now, under the new powers, the authorities no longer have to give reasons for those arrested. Detainees can be held for 15 days without seeing a judge and without access to lawyers.

When those arrested finally find a lawyer, the public defender’s office is overwhelmed. Tens of thousands of new cases have piled up on top of existing records from only about 250 public defenders nationwide.

Domínguez’s family and around 50 other people in the area appear to have been among the first to organize in an attempt to free their loved ones. The families have made filings with the courts known as habeas corpus, which orders a detained person to be brought before a court and places the burden of proof on the government. Cristosal helped in many of these cases, including Domínguez’s.

The crime most commonly attributed to those arrested, including Domínguez, is unlawful association for alleged gang membership. According to a report by Cristosal, judges have been virtually automatic in ordering people to be detained for six months at the request of prosecutors despite little or no supporting evidence. Judges ordered the detention of nearly 26,000 people in prison, according to prosecutors.

In April, a police union said some commanders under pressure to meet arrest quotas were pushing their officers to do whatever was necessary to make arrests, including making false claims linking people to gangs. And last month, three police officers were arrested on their way to collect the money they demanded in exchange for not arresting someone.

Just hours before Domínguez’s arrest, Bukele wrote on Twitter — above photos of bare-chested gang members with faces and torsos covered in tattoos — that authorities had arrested more than 13,000 “terrorists.” “. Those following the president’s social media feed wouldn’t imagine that Domínguez – a mother of two, including a 4-month-old daughter – would soon feature in the tally of arrests.

José Lazo Romero, an attorney for the Friar Mercedes Ruíz Foundation, a Christian social justice organization Dominguez worked with, said he was aware of at least 15 cases similar to his in the area, including three young men arrested as they returned home after playing football. and a disabled person taken away by the authorities.

“They say he who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear,” Lazo said. “Now people who have precisely nothing to hide are afraid of being arrested, afraid of being taken to prison, of being sent to prison.”

The area is known as Bajo Lempa, the alluvial plains southeast of the capital near where the Lempa River empties into the Pacific Ocean. These lowlands are flooded almost every year when the Lempa overflows and spills into agrarian communities like the one where Domínguez grew up.

Many people here have already fled conflict during the civil war of the 1980s – in Panama, in Nicaragua, in other parts of El Salvador. After the 1992 peace agreement, many supporters of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, were resettled here. María Dolores García, Domínguez’s 55-year-old mother and supporter of the FMLN to this day, was one of them.

García was a childhood survivor of the Quesera Massacre. In October 1981, military forces from El Salvador, including an elite unit trained by the United States, swept through communities in the area. Several hundred people, including many women and children, were killed.

“I lived through all the suffering of war,” she said, adding, “Even today, being persecuted is not easy.”

Lawyers say the vast majority of those arrested come from poor and marginalized communities. The pain is doubly felt by their families, as those arrested were often the breadwinners.

Domínguez was not the first member of his family arrested. Sergio Santos, a farm worker, his longtime partner and the father of his 4-month-old daughter, was arrested on April 9 by police who came to the family home and asked García how many men and women lived there. They told him to wake up Santos. She said they had a list of names, looked at his ID, said, “It’s you,” and handcuffed him.

Domínguez began daily rounds with the police, at the prison, trying to obtain information. She was well known in the community and had worked alongside local police station officers on a youth program to prevent violence. Her mother said her job did not bring her into contact with gang members.

The day she met the police, Domínguez had tried to deliver food to Santos and discovered that he had been transferred to a prison in the capital. Then she too disappeared.

Years ago gangs were here. They recruited the children and grandchildren of former guerrilla fighters.

“Against your will, you had to coexist with them here,” said Ricardo Hernández, a 68-year-old neighbor of Domínguez and his family. “They asked for water, we had to give them some. They asked for anything, you had to give it to them. Even food and money.

This changed when the government installed two police stations in the area several years ago. Gangs have moved into the mangroves closer to the coast, and the police have become – and remain – more visible. Now there is no sign of gang graffiti.

With Congress extending the state of emergency for another month, more questions have arisen about what led to the spike in killings in March.

Last month, the investigative news site El Faro published phone conversations apparently between gang leaders and a government official in Bukele. Records said the killings – 62 in one day – came in response to the breakdown of a secret deal with the government. Last year, the US Treasury sanctioned two officials, including the one captured in the tapes, saying Bukele’s administration bought gang support with privileges for their imprisoned leaders.

Bukele has previously denied dealing with the gangs, but his only public response to the latest evidence implicating his administration has been a laugh till you cry emoji on Twitter.

Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said, asking for the extension, that the government wanted to eradicate the gangs. “This war,” he said, “is going to continue as long as necessary and as long as the public continues to demand it.”

One recent morning, García pulled a wad of stamped and signed letters out of a plastic bag. All testify to Dominguez’s community activism – organizations she had led or worked for, organizations that championed women, promoted community development and pushed for chemical-free agriculture.

During a court hearing on May 2, where dozens of detainees were arrested en masse. the judge ordered Domínguez an additional six months in pretrial detention. Garcia had given the letters to a public defender, but the judge never saw them.

In the arraignments Cristosal has witnessed, judges face anywhere from 50 to over 500 inmates at a time. Nor do judges usually admit documents like the ones García collected that testify to the character of the accused.

“The evidence brought against these people is what we would describe as general statistics, not necessarily information linking individuals to criminal activity,” said Bullock, director of Cristosal.

In a separate case, a woman arrested in 2019 for unlawful association after a gang member mentioned her name in a tapped phone conversation has been re-arrested under emergency rule. Cristosal, who helps her, argues she was arrested and charged a second time for the same circumstances in her 2019 case. Her family said there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Other stories have emerged of people who have just completed or have almost completed a prison sentence and who have been re-arrested on the same charges. Such arrests suggest the government is using lists of people who have had contact with the criminal justice system, even if they have been exonerated, to carry out detentions.

In La Limonera, about 200 meters from the family home, through a clearing, Domínguez cultivated a plot to help feed the household. Recently, weeds were invading the neat rows of tomatoes and pineapples.

García says suddenly finding herself the primary caretaker of two children, including a nursing baby, turned her life upside down. Domínguez and his partner are in jail, as is the father of Domínguez’s 12-year-old daughter, who had provided financial support.

García relied on donations to feed the children. She worries about plants dying in her daughter’s unattended garden. “It impacted everyone here in the community because everyone knows her,” García said. “She was the head of the family.”

And what will become of people like Dominguez? Under the current rules, there is no way to know. Says Bullock: “There is a very uncertain future for people who find themselves in this black hole of a justice system.”

Sherman reported from Mexico. AP writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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