Martyrs of El Calabozo: They are in our memory
What has come to be known as the “El Calabozo” massacre took place on August 21 and 22, 1982 in the Amatitán Abajo canton of San Esteban Catarina, San Vicente. More than 200 civilians were killed by the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Armed Forces.
This area of San Vicente was considered a guerrilla stronghold by the military, and as news of the offensive spread, the communities of San Vicente began to flee in fear for their lives. Many of those who stayed behind to protect their land were elderly, women and young children.
Juan Carillo, an inhabitant of the Amatitán canton and survivor of the massacre, recalled that day when several of his family members were killed while he, a 7 year old, had to run for his life. “I lost more than 35 members of my family here. My mom, Orbelinda Carrillo, my grandparents and some of my siblings as well. We have psychological trauma. We were abandoned, you could say. We lost all of the support of family,” said Juan.
Juan Carrillo is one of the survivors of the El Calabozo massacre, which occurred on the Amatitán River
José and another inhabitant of the area, Juan, see similarities between what happened then and the current State of Emergency in which police and soldiers are arresting thousands of people for alleged gang ties and without investigating. “At that time the army claimed that all the peasants were guerrillas, but it was a lie. Many of us ended up joining, but later, as a response to what the Army had done.”
40 Years Without Justice
Every year, the Committee of Victims and Historical Memory of San Esteban Catarina organizes a commemoration to remember the victims and demand justice from the Salvadoran government. “People who forget their martyrs, do not deserve them. Martyrs of El Calabozo are in our memory,” exclaimed the gathering as they made their way in procession from the Amatitlán Arriba Community House to the Amatitlán Abajo River, the scene of the 1982 crime.
Every year the Committee of Victims and Historical Memory of the municipality of San Esteban Catarina remembers the massacre.
David Morales, head of Transitional Justice at Cristosal, still hopes for collaboration from the Salvadoran State in order to bring justice in this case that has remained in impunity. “The military documents have been hidden. This is a political position of the Armed Forces and the current government, who, like previous administrations refuses to hand over the documents and instead takes a position that totally favors the military. However, we believe that the testimonial evidence is strong. There have been inspections in this place. Survivors are still testifying and we hope to schedule new hearings in the coming days and we believe that the fact of the massacre is very clear”, explained Morales.
Cristosal supports the struggle for justice and truth. We represent the victims in the criminal proceedings against those responsible for the massacre who are being tried in court in San Sebastián, San Vicente. Irene Gómez, lawyer of Cristosal’s Transitional Justice team, explained that the demand for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition “are victims’ rights”.
Family members, human rights organizations and survivors of the El Calabozo massacre remember them every August 22 with music, songs, fruit and flowers, as well as a Mass in their memory.
People bring floral and fruit offerings to remember their murdered relatives.
On January 14 of this year, the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) ordered the arrest of five former military chiefs involved in the El Calabozo massacre. The Calabozo Massacre is a crime against humanity that has yet to move beyond the investigative stage, which means that impunity continues 40 years later.
El Salvador: Evidence of Serious Abuse in State of Emergency
Arbitrary Arrests, Short-Term Disappearances, Deaths in Custody
People wait for news of the release of relatives detained during the state of emergency in El Salvador, at the security perimeter of the Izalco prison in Izalco, El Salvador, on April 28, 2022. © 2022 REUTERS/Jose Cabeza.
(San Salvador) – There is mounting evidence that El Salvadoran authorities have been committing serious human rights violations since adopting a state of emergency on March 27, 2022, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said today. The organizations, which are jointly monitoring the state of emergency, have received credible allegations of dozens of arbitrary arrests, including some that could amount to short-term enforced disappearances, and of two deaths of people in custody.
On April 24, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly extended the state of emergency for 30 days. The emergency provisions suspend the right to privacy, freedom of association and assembly, and some due process protections. The government of President Nayib Bukele requested the extension, contending that the state of emergency had helped address a wave of homicides by gangs, though the conditions leading to the violence persisted. According to the government, more than 20,000 people have been arrested since March 25, many for allegedly “belonging to an unlawful association.”
“During the first 30 days of Bukele’s state of emergency, we have seen evidence of arbitrary arrests of innocent people, some of them subjected to short-term enforced disappearances, and worrying deaths in custody,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting Salvadorans from gang violence, security forces are abusing the overly broad powers granted to them by Bukele’s allies in the Legislative Assembly, who have now opened the door to 30 more days of human rights violations.”
The preliminary findings by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal are based on 43 interviews with victims, their relatives, lawyers, and civil society members, as well as a review of corroborating photographs, judicial files, and medical records. Members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an international group of prominent forensic experts, provided expert opinion on some evidence of abuses.
As of April 26, the organizations were still analyzing evidence related to 180 additional reported cases, including dozens of reported arbitrary arrests identified by Cristosal.
Since March 25, police and soldiers have conducted dozens of raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, arresting thousands of people. In 34 of the 40 cases of abuse for which Cristosal and Human Rights Watch were able to obtain first-hand information, security forces had detained people at their homes or in the streets. In 20 cases, security forces had raided people’s homes without showing a warrant.
In most cases, witnesses said security agents did not show an arrest warrant to justify the detention, nor did they indicate why people were being detained. In 11 cases in which victims asked why they were being arrested, officers said they were “following the orders of their superiors.” In some cases, officers allegedly searched for tattoos on people’s bodies when detaining them, presumably for evidence of gang affiliation. Many people interviewed said that their relatives were not tattooed or had artistic tattoos unrelated to gangs.
In 12 of the 40 cases, witnesses saw security forces take photographs of the detainees. In some of these cases, the security forces later posted the photographs on social media, publicly accusing the detainees of being gang members or “terrorists” before they were taken before a judge.
In five cases, witnesses said that police or soldiers hit people as they were detained. In another five cases, police officers told detainees’ relatives that they were going to be detained if they did not “stop asking questions.” In almost all of the cases, witnesses said, detainees were taken to a nearby police station. Only 10 of those detained were allowed to see or talk with their families before being transferred to another police station or a prison. Twenty-four were held in incommunicado detention for days or weeks.
Relatives of detainees typically said they were not informed of the whereabouts of their loved ones. In five cases, relatives said, officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts even when family members went from detention center to detention center to inquire. In 19 cases, relatives said they still do not know where their loved ones are being held and have been unable to communicate with them for days or weeks.
When authorities refuse to acknowledge a detention or conceal the whereabouts of a person taken into custody, no matter for how long, it constitutes an enforced disappearance, which is prohibited under international law, even during states of emergency. This leaves the disappeared person defenseless and the family facing levels of uncertainty and suffering that are inhumane and abusive, the groups said.
Human Rights Watch and Cristosal documented two cases of people detained during the state of emergency who died in custody. Salvadoran media outlets have reported three additional cases.
Elvis Josué Sánchez Rivera, a 21-year-old musician, died on April 19, following his arrest on April 3 in Santa María Ostuma. His family said he was arrested when he was on his way to play soccer with a friend. They said they did not know where Sánchez Rivera was after his arrest and were informed of his death on April 19 by hospital authorities. The authorities did not conduct an autopsy, his relatives said. A medical report says he had been transferred from a detention center and indicates that he died of “hypertension” and “sudden death.” Photographs of his body show bruises.
Rusudan Beriashvili and James Lin, members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), analyzed the photos. They told Human Rights Watch and Cristosal that there “appear to be multiple lesions on different areas of the body that may have occurred during custody and may be the result of torture or other ill-treatment.” They said that the death was “suspicious” and that the reported lack of an autopsy was seriously concerning and run counter to international standards and widely accepted medical practice.
Walter Vladimir Sandoval Peñate, a 32-year-old agricultural worker, died on April 3. Police had arrested him on March 30, in La Trinidad. Relatives who witnessed the detention said police officers detained him claiming he belonged “to an unlawful association.” On April 3, his family went to the police station where he was detained to bring him food and water.
Officers told a relative that he should “return the next day early in the morning to speak with the public defender who was assigned to the case.” A few hours later, a person who works at a mortuary went to Sandoval Penate’s house and told his family he had died. A report by El Salvador’s Institute of Legal Medicine says he died due to “severe thorax trauma.” Photographs of his body show multiple bruises.
Many detainees appear to be under investigation for the crime of “belonging to an unlawful association.” Under the state of emergency, the authorities are not required to bring detainees before a judge until 15 days after arrest, as opposed to the 72-hour requirement established in the Salvadoran Constitution.
On April 21, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado said during a press interview that 5,900 of the more than 14,000 people detained by then had been charged with a crime and sent to pretrial detention. Only 17 people had been released after a court hearing, he said.
Dozens of children have been charged and sent to pretrial detention, according to several tweets by Delgado.
The large-scale detentions have most likely aggravated prison overcrowding. As of December 2020, Salvadoran prisons were 136 percent over capacity, with some holding more than six times the maximum number of prisoners allowed. On April 19, the Legislative Assembly passed a law to create new prisons.
On March 30, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation expanding mandatory pretrial detention to include all crimes committed by alleged gang members and allowing for these people to be held for an indefinite period before trial. The Assembly also lowered the age of criminal responsibility for children accused of the existing crime of belonging to “terrorist groups or any other criminal gang,” from 16 to 12 years. The new legislation allows prison sentences of up to 10 years for children ages 12 to 16 and of up to 20 years for children over 16.
Salvadoran authorities have an obligation to conduct thorough, prompt, and independent investigations into abuses and deaths in custody, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said.
However, investigations face dauting, if not insurmountable, obstacles given the high number of detainees and the fact that there are virtually no independent institutions left to act as a check on executive power in El Salvador. In recent months, the pro-Bukele majority in the Legislative Assembly has packed the Supreme Court, replaced the attorney general with a government ally, and dismissed hundreds of low-level judges and prosecutors.
“The way to prevent these abuses is to end the state of emergency, ensure due process rights, and respect the independence of judges and prosecutors,” Taraciuk Broner said.
Organizations are calling for comprehensive security policies that do not violate human rights
In the context of the increase in homicidal violence by gangs and the Bukele administration’s response, national and international human rights organizations urge the State of El Salvador to implement comprehensive citizen security policies with a focus on human rights, gender, and intersectionality, as well as clear mechanisms for citizen participation and accountability to reduce crime rates and human rights violations.
The organizations pointed out that 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.
In a press conference, they requested that the prosecution of the crime should have a scientific approach, based on evidence and technical information that allows for the as well as criminal investigation and real strategies that lead to coordination within the criminal justice system beyond punishment and incarceration.
For the organizations, the 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. This is evidenced by the fact that three of the organizations in just the first week have received reports from 26 victims of abuse of authority.
In fact, the data reflects that most of the victims have been victims of the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Armed Forces of El Salvador, resulting in reports of 16 arbitrary detentions, six cases of intimidation and 3 cases of bodily harm.
The spokespersons of the organizations expressed their rejection of violence of all kinds and extended their expressions of solidarity to the families and communities that historically experience the impact of violence. As part of civil society, they actively contribute to the defense and protection of the human rights of people facing violence. They also provide technical support to strengthen state institutions in different areas.
In addition, the organizations ratified their commitment to continue contributing to the design and implementation of public policies from a citizen security approach, plans and assistance protocols that ensure compliance with the commitments regarding the prevention of violence, attention to victims, prosecution of crime, rehabilitation, and social reintegration within the framework of respect for human rights, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
Context of Declaration of a State of Exception in El Salvador
On Saturday evening March 26th, President Nayib Bukele tweeted his request that the legislative assembly declare a state of exception in response to the horrific number of murders over the weekend. Early Sunday morning, the legislature, controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party declared the state of exception suspending constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and altering basic guarantees related to arrest and detention. These measures, which are valid for 30 days, also permit the government to intercept communications, a concern to journalists and human rights defenders some of whom have already had their phones intercepted with the Pegasus program. Cristosal’s legal team is completely an initial analysis of the decree which will serve as the basis for any legal action that would be taken. Any time fundamental rights are suspended, it is imperative that strict oversight and transparency be maintained to prevent abuse of power.
What is a State of Exception? Simply put a state of exception is the use of a legal mechanism within the constitution of a country, which can be used by the head of state in the event or conflict that disturbs the internal order of that nation in order to be able to deal with it in an adequate manner. When a state of exception is established in an area of the country, the fundamental rights of the citizens residing in that area are automatically partially or totally suspended.
Photo: Rodrigo Sura
Bukele’s administration was the first since the Peace Accords to use the suspension of rights to address a national emergency. This was done at the beginning of the pandemic before there was community spread in El Salvador. Cristosal documented the ways in which the state of exception was used to abuse authority and control the population through fear. We presented legal cases which demonstrated the unconstitutional nature of those measures and have been a target of Bukele’s derision ever since.
The perpetrators of the violence are presumed to be gang-related, this has raised the question about the state of the as yet unclarified negotiations between the Bukele administration and El Salvador’s notorious gangs. The US Treasury Department of December 2021 gave details of a study documenting the corruption and participants in these negotiations. According to the study the Bukele administration had offered money to the gang “to ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low,” the Treasury statement said. “Over the course of these negotiations with Luna and Marroquin, gang leadership also agreed to provide political support to the Nuevas Ideas political party in upcoming elections.”
Bukele has been adamant in his denial of negotiation with the gangs. He has touted the success of his “Territorial Control Plan” in which he has repeatedly claimed that his security policies have reduced the homicide rate to the lowest in decades. There has been little explanation as to why the policies suddenly became ineffective with the resulting bloodshed this past weekend. Cristosal has expressed concern that with no transparency as to criminal policy, all evidence points to a breakdown in what investigative journalists and the US Treasure Department have documented as an illicit negotiation.
The revelations from the Treasury Department contributed to the tensions between Bukele and Biden administrations. In May, in the opening session of the legislative assembly the Nuevas Ideas controlled congress removed the attorney general and the justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court. The U.S. government expressed serious concern about the agenda of the Bukele administration. Cristosal at that time worked diligently to take legal action as well as inform the public about the authoritarian direction of the administration.
The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would shift aid from government agencies in El Salvador to non-governmental organizations, in part because of concerns of corruption. El Salvador’s new attorney general in June announced the government was canceling the Organization of American States’ anti-corruption mission in the Central American country. The social organizations who continue to take a stand of anti-corruption have been targeted for public criticism as well as an attempt to pass a law placing untenable tax burdens on their operations, among other deterrents.
Along with the state of exception declared by the legislature, the President also ordered (via social media) a complete lockdown in the prison system and sent a message saying this was punishment for the actions of their “homeboys” in the streets. His social messages included one to the “international community” concerned about “their angels” saying they are free to come bring food because he would not be spending any more money to feed terrorists and the current rations will have to be shared amongst them. The Vice President of Security and head of the Salvador prison system, Osiris Luna tweeted that with the state of exception gang members might not even make it to prison. Using the hashtag “WarAgainstGangs” (#GuerraContraPandillas) the focus of social media tweets from Bukele have focused on imprisoned gang members and the ways he plans to make them pay.
The Salvadoran population has long paid the price of ineffectual security policy. The rhetoric of vengeance and promises to eliminate the cause have played on the vulnerability of victims and communities who have no other recourse. His popularity
Bukele enjoys extremely high popularity. He stepped into a political vacuum left by discredited traditional parties from the left and right.
What Cristosal Is Doing
Our legal team have worked hard to produce a document outlining our legal analysis of the decree. We will send the analysis to diplomatic missions, international bodies, and media. The communications team will adapt the analysis in popular art format to be shared publicly. We will continue to combat the idea that the only way to protect lives is to sacrifice fundamental freedoms and invite Salvadorans to be aware of their own rights and seek recourse when they are violated. We use advertising to promote the protection system with a message of support to victims of violence and reopen the our digital platform to receive reports of human rights violations.
A Reflection from a Human Rights Defender
My Words are not for Those Who Wield Power
*Rosa Anaya is a human rights defender and peace builder living and working in El Salvador. She has dedicated her professional life to addressing the issues of violence with those immersed in it. She has dedicated her heart in service of human dignity.
No, my words are not for those who wield power, for that they would have to want to read and have the ears to hear, but right now they are very busy taking a photo of themselves, smiling and proud of the decree they requested and served in record time, as the last move on the chessboard of power: the pawns are dead, the king advances.
My words, my energies, my heart are for the families who this morning are taking care of the business of funerals for loved ones they did not say goodbye to properly, because they never thought that, in the country of virtual wonders, they would have to feel in flesh and heart, the way reality is sown in the cemetery, in a funeral of national import. This day I have cried for families I do not know, but for whom I feel and share the collective pain of this senselessness.
There are never words to give condolence, especially under these strange circumstances, I just want to say to those families I do not know, how sorry I am.
I also have my words for those who orchestrated the pulling of triggers: What did you gain? What did you lose? What was taken from you? What are you proud of the day after? You are part of this people; our people have already suffered too much to continue lending ourselves to the little game called death. No, my brothers and sisters in suffering and rancor, they are not paper cards that you lay on the table for this game, it is the life and blood of your people.
These are families that day by day want to earn the bread to feed their loved ones, these are people with broken dreams for every black Friday or Saturday. These are your people that return to work on Monday to grab the scraps of life that remain after the senseless massacre, and with the thread of fear mend the desire to continue living and fighting for the real transformations of this sick system, and see our country as the beautiful homeland that could be and is not, so that someday your children and mine will not have to play the game of: eeny meeny miney mo, today it’s my turn to die and who will be next?
Also, a word for you who think that more fire will extinguish the fire, for you who manipulate the pain to gain popularity, we have already danced to this tune so many times that it is not even worth the time to spell it out for you again, not even with illustrations.
For those who follow your enduring work of defending human rights, I see you fighting every day and defending the rights of all human beings, as it should be. You cannot choose or segregate among those who have rights and those who do not. Holding fast to tenderness amid chaos is part of how we demonstrate our rebellion in the face of the frustration of being protectors of peace in the middle of a rabid dogfight. Courage, we are just ants with spoons trying to move a mountain, patience, and struggle.
My admiration and solidarity for those who maintain the firm conviction that respect for human rights is the path to peace, even in times when violence seems to be the preferred flag to wave, we already know the consequences that such thinking brings in the end.
Published March 27m 2022 in Espacio Revista Digital
Translated with permission from Rosa Anaya*
March 24: International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims
Every March 24 we commemorate important work and values of Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated on this day in 1980 for speaking out against human rights violations and defending vulnerable populations. His stand in favor of human dignity and against every form of violence inspired the United Nations to proclaim March 24 the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.
On 24th of March, we honor the memory of the victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and affirm their right to know the full and complete truth as to the events that transpired, their specific circumstances, and who participated in them, including knowing the circumstances in which the violations took place, as well as the reasons for them.
Photo: Alex Peña/El Salvador.