by Alejandra Sandoval | Mar 16, 2023 | RELEASES
The Remains of 16 Victims of the El Mozote Massacre are Finally Laid to Rest
Forensic authorities handed over the remains of 16 victims of the massacre at El Mozote, perpetrated by the army in 1981 during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992),on Wednesday to their families for burial.
“This is important for us as relatives and victims that we are, because now we can finally say goodbye and lay them to rest,” said Cruz Vigil, vice president of the Association for the Promotion of Human Rights of El Mozote (APDHEM).
The skeletal remains were taken from the exhumations carried out in 2016 in the communities of Cerro Pando, La Joya and Toriles, near El Mozote, confirming the survivors’ testimonies about the murders of their relatives.
“After so much waiting, they are now with us. Today we can place flowers on their graves, they way it should be done,” said Maria Ascencio Pereira.
On Wednesday night, a wake was held with the remains of the 16 victims present, including those of a pregnant woman. On Thursday the funerals of 10 victims took place at the monument to the victims in the community of La Joya, four in the cemetery of Meanguera and two in Arambala, all towns in the department of Morazán, northeast of San Salvador.
“For Cristosal and for the victims, this is a very meaningful event because it is a form of reparation. It is an act that reaffirms a historical truth”. Antonio Aguilar, lawyer for Cristosal’s transitional justice team.
In 1981, soldiers of the Army’s now outlawed Atlacatl Battalion executed 986 people, including 558 children, in El Mozote and surrounding communities on suspicion of collaborating with the guerrillas.
The civil war ended on January 16, 1992 and left more than 75,000 dead and disappeared. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, condemned the Salvadoran State for the El Mozote massacre, the most serious of the Salvadoran civil war, and ordered reparation measures.
by Alejandra Sandoval | Mar 14, 2023 | RELEASES
Cristosal Sues the Ministry of Health for Failing to Compensate the Deaths of Frontline Health Workers
Cristosal filed 17 lawsuits against the Ministry of Health of El Salvador (MINSAL) for failing to compensate the families of public health workers who died between March 14 and July 23, 2020 as a result of Covid-19 or its complications.
The families of health workers have been waiting for more than two years for a $30,000 compensation that was approved in June 2020 by the Legislative Assembly and signed by President Bukele in September of the same year.
Under this law, MINSAL was given fifteen working days to compile a registry with the information of all the members of the National Health System who died during the previously mentioned time period and identify the persons entitled to compensation. The Ministry was also ordered to find and administer the funds to guarantee the compensation. However, as of today, this obligation has not been met.
Cristosal’s lawyers are seeking to have the court put further pressure on the Ministry of Health so these families will receive this financial support in as short a time as possible
by Alejandra Sandoval | Mar 10, 2023 | RELEASES
Communities of Usulután and Cristosal denounce the Salvadoran state for human rights violations during state of exception.
Mother seeking information about they son detained under a state of exception.
Cristosal, on behalf of 66 victims from organized communities in Usulután, El Salvador, filed a complaint against the Salvadoran State before the IACHR for systematic human rights violations during the state of exception.
According to the complaint, all of the detentions were arbitrary, with no motive or prior police, prosecutorial or judicial order. The detainees were sent immediately to prisons in which they were placed with both convicted prisoners and those awaiting trial. The families did not receive information on the detainees’ whereabouts, state of health or legal situation, and the detainees did not have access to their families or defense counsel. It is unknown whether the detainees suffered cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or torture.
The detainees were brought before a judge after 15 days, and most of them were accused of belonging to gangs or collaborating with them. During the initial hearing, the detainees were not allowed to communicate with their attorneys and were held with dozens or hundreds of other detainees without the right to be heard.
Prior to the complaint before the IACHR, habeas corpus petitions have been filed in the Constitutional Chamber on behalf of the victims, but none have been admitted or resolved to date, except with provisos and in some cases were ruled inadmissible.
Cristosal and the families of the victims request the IACHR to ask the Salvadoran State:
- To take measures to protect the life and integrity of the victims during their time in detention, as well as to guarantee access to adequate medical care.
- To allow access to legal representatives and family members, as well as to inform them about their health and legal situation.
- To take measures to reduce overcrowding and to report on the actions taken. All of this must be in agreement with the affected persons and their representatives.
by Alejandra Sandoval | Mar 8, 2023 | RELEASES
“We don’t feel like we did before, we are different”: A story of resistance women.
Under the shade of a century-old tree, a group of more than 35 women gather to tell their story, which has been the most difficult and painful of their lives. Among these women is Arely, a young woman who tells how violence forced her and her family to flee their home and the human and material losses caused by this displacement.
“We left for fear of dying, out of fear for our children. They were crying and shouting, ‘mom, let’s go, let’s get out or they will kill us,'” Arely says.
A cousin of Arely’s found out through social media about an organization that understands her suffering and provides support and guidance. That organization was Cristosal. This is when they decided to come together and seek help.
“We had to keep standing up for those who stayed, keep going forward and fight for those who came with us”, says.
Cristosal received this report of forced displacement caused by violence in May 2021. Since then, Cristosal has been providing psychosocial support and helping them find durable, sustainable, solutions. Some time later, through a project funded by AWO, Cristosal began organizing women community leaders who had previously been victims of forced displacement.
“Through Cristosal we participated in workshops, psychological care for how we were feeling, who we were before the trauma we went through, and what we had to overcome. So we created a plan showing where we came from and where we want to go, and how we can achieve it”, Arely says.
With the tools provided by Cristosal and with the motivation fueled by her faith and her community, Arely and her family founded the “Manos Unidas Haciendo Memoria” (Hands Joined in Making Memories), a collective in which they rediscover their strength, abilities and understand the importance of their rights.
“We don’t feel like we did before, we are different. We used to only cry and think about what we had lost, about the material things. But we had something valuable: our lives, our families.”
Many Salvadoran families are still being displaced by the violence both by the state and by the gangs that control the area. But experiences such as that of the Manos Unidas Collective, uphold Cristosal’s commitment to work from and for these communities.
by Alejandra Sandoval | Jan 27, 2023 | RELEASES
El Salvador: Leaked Database Points to Large-Scale Abuses
In March 2022, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed a state of emergency, suspending some fundamental rights in response to a peak in gang violence. Photo: Emerson Flores.
(New York – HRW) – A database obtained by Human Rights Watch supports findings of mass due process violations, severe prison overcrowding, and deaths in custody in El Salvador, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said today.
The database appears to belong to the Ministry of Public Safety and lists names of people prosecuted between March and late-August 2022 during the country’s state of emergency. It indicates that thousands of people, including hundreds of children, have been arrested and charged with broadly defined crimes that violate detainees’ basic due process guarantees and undermine prospects of justice for victims of gang violence. The document also supports Human Rights Watch and Cristosal’s findings of severe overcrowding conditions in detention and deaths in custody.
“This leaked database points to serious human rights violations committed during the state of emergency,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “According to the data, Salvadoran authorities have inhumanely packed detainees, including hundreds of children, in crowded detention sites, while doing very little to ensure victims’ access to justice for gang violence.”
In March 2022, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed a state of emergency, suspending some fundamental rights in response to a peak in gang violence. The measure has been extended 10 times and remains in place. Police officers and soldiers have detained over 61,000 people since March, according to the authorities. About 3,000 people have been released, in many cases under parole, and 58,000 remain in prison.
The database provides the names, ages, and gender of people prosecuted under the state of emergency between March and August 2022. It also contains information about the charges against detainees, and the city where they were arrested.
A reliable source indicated that the database belongs to the Public Safety Ministry. To assess its authenticity, Human Rights Watch cross-referenced the names in the database with other sources, including cases documented by local organizations or reported in the media, and identified over 300 matches. Other information presented in the database, including the crimes attributed to many of the detainees, the detention facilities where they were often sent, and the total number of people in pre-trial detention, are consistent with Human Rights Watch and Cristosal’s findings and with information publicly reported by government authorities.
The following information in the database raises serious human rights concerns:
- As of late August, 1,082 children arrested during the state of emergency – 918 boys and 164 girls – had been sent to pre-trial detention, including 21 who were ages 12 or 13. These incarcerations were made possible under a March 2022 law that lowered from 16 to 12 the age of criminal responsibility for children accused of gang related crimes.
- The database indicates that 32 people died in custody, most of them at the La Esperanza, also known as Mariona, and Izalco prisons. Salvadoran authorities reported in November that 90 people have died in custody since March, in circumstances that have yet to be properly investigated.
- Over 39,000 people had been charged with the crime of “unlawful association” and over 8,000 with membership to a “terrorist organization.” In comparison, many fewer people had been charged with violent crimes. 148 people, or less than 0.3 percent of the detainees, were charged with homicide and 303 people, or less than 0.6 percent, were charged with sexual assault. El Salvador defines the crime of “unlawful association” broadly to include not only people who lead or take part on gangs, but also those who receive “indirect benefit” from gangs by having relations “of any nature.” Salvadoran law also defines “terrorist organization” in a broad manner that runs counter to international standards. The use of these broadly defined crimes opens the door to arbitrary arrests of people with no relevant connection to gangs, and does little to ensure justice for violent gang abuses, such as killings and rape.
- As of August, over 50,000 people had been sent to pre-trial detention, increasing the prison population to over 86,000. According to public information, as of February 2021, prisons in El Salvador had capacity of 30,000. Those sent to pre-trial detention since the adoption of the state of emergency include over 7,900 women, double the total number in jail in El Salvador as of February 2021.
- Most of the detainees were sent to Mariona prison, where the population increased from 7,600 from 33,000, and to the Izalco prison, where the population increased from 8,500 to 23,300. According to the database, as of August, Mariona had four times as many detainees as it could hold, and Izalco had three times as many. Other detention facilities, such as the Ilopango prison for women and the prison of San Miguel for men, had populations of six times capacity. In October, the head of the prison system, Osiris Luna Meza, said that the women detained in Ilopango had been transferred to another prison.
A December 2022 report by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal found widespread human rights violations committed under the state of emergency, including mass arbitrary detention, torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees, deaths in custody, and abuse-ridden prosecutions. In some cases, officers also refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts to their relatives and acquaintances, in what amounts to enforced disappearances under international law.
Security forces have carried out hundreds of indiscriminate raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, targeting marginalized communities where people have, for years, suffered from lack of economic and educational opportunities. The mass arrests have led to the detention of hundreds of people with no apparent connections to gangs’ abusive activity.
The abuses committed during the state of emergency have been enabled by President Bukele’s swift dismantling of democratic institutions since taking office in 2019, which has left virtually no independent government bodies that can serve as a check on the executive branch or ensure redress for victims of abuse.
The government has also restricted access to public information and weakened the role of the Access to Public Information Agency. The authorities told Human Rights Watch and Cristosal that information about people detained during the state of emergency is “classified,” even when it is of public interest under international human rights standards.
Salvadoran authorities should replace the state of emergency with a sustainable and rights-respecting strategy to address gang violence and protect the population from gang abuses, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said. The strategy should include tackling high levels of poverty and social exclusion, and focusing on prosecutions of higher-level gang leaders.
“These new findings support the conclusions of our reports on widespread human rights violations, which are especially serious in a context of lack of accountability and massive due process violations. We urge governments in the region to guarantee public security without engaging in unfair policies,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal.
by Alejandra Sandoval | Dec 7, 2022 | RELEASES
El Salvador: Widespread Abuses Under State of Emergency
Download the report: We Can Arrest Anyone We Want: Widespread Human Rights Violations Under El Salvador’s ‘State of Emergency here.
Photo: Emerson Flores
(New York) – Salvadoran security forces have committed widespread human rights violations since the adoption of a state of emergency approved in late March 2022, in response to a peak in gang violence, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said in a joint report released today.
The 89-page report, “‘We Can Arrest Anyone We Want’: Widespread Human Rights Violations Under El Salvador’s ‘State of Emergency’” documents mass arbitrary detention, torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees, enforced disappearances, deaths in custody, and abuse-ridden prosecutions. President Nayib Bukele’s swift dismantling of judicial independence since he took office in mid-2019 enabled the abuses.
“Salvadoran security forces have battered vulnerable communities with widespread human rights violations in the name of public safety,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “To put an end to gang violence and human rights violations, El Salvador’s government should replace the state of emergency with an effective and rights-respective security policy that grants Salvadorans the safety they so dearly deserve.”
Since the state of emergency was adopted, police officers and soldiers have conducted hundreds of indiscriminate raids, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, arresting over 58,000 people, including more than 1,600 children. Officers have often targeted low-income communities where people have, for years, suffered insecurity and lacked economic and educational opportunities.
Between March 2022 and November 2022, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal interviewed more than 1,100 people from all 14 states in El Salvador, including during a Human Rights Watch visit to the country in October. Interviewees included victims of abuse, their relatives and lawyers, witnesses, and government officials. Researchers also reviewed relevant case files, medical records and death certificates, and consulted international forensic experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group on some cases.
Human Rights Watch and Cristosal found that the police and soldiers carried out similar violations repeatedly, across the country, and over several months. Official policies and the rhetoric of high-level government authorities have in some cases created incentives for abuse, including by, at times, requiring officers to arrest a given number of people daily.
President Bukele has publicly backed the security forces and tried to intimidate the country’s few remaining independent judges and prosecutors who could investigate violations. He has also promoted dehumanizing rhetoric against detainees and their families, and stigmatized independent journalists and civil society groups that report on abuses.
Salvadoran authorities have not reported any progress in investigating human rights violations committed during the state of emergency.
The massive, indiscriminate arrests have led to the detention of hundreds of people with no apparent connections to gangs’ abusive activity. In many cases, detentions appear to be based on the detainees’ appearance and social background or on questionable evidence. Police and soldiers did not show people a search or arrest warrant, and rarely informed them or their families of the reasons for their arrest.
In one case, police arrested a 45-year-old professor and taxi owner at his taxi shop in the state of San Salvador. Before he entered Izalco prison, officers forced him to kneel on the ground for about two hours, under the sun, and to squat 25 times while naked. “Welcome to hell,” prison guards said, he told researchers.
As detainees walked to their cells, police officers stood on both sides and beat them, he said. The cell had capacity for 30 people but held 125. Guards told detainees they could not talk or pray and threw teargas in the cell every time someone disobeyed. He was released on bail on September 22.
In some cases, officers refused to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts to their families, in what amount to enforced disappearances under international law.
Judges and prosecutors repeatedly failed to provide due process protections under international law, violating detainees’ human rights and making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to adequately defend themselves during criminal proceedings. Hearings were conducted in groups of up to 500 detainees, and over 51,000 people were sent to pretrial detention under recently approved Salvadoran laws that violate international human rights law.
The prison population increased from 39,000 in March 2022 to an estimated 95,000 detainees as of November, over three times the official capacity. Thousands have been held incommunicado for weeks or months, or were only allowed to see their lawyer for a few minutes before their hearings.
Some of the few people who were released from detention reported inhumane conditions and, in some cases, torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Ninety people have died in custody, in circumstances that have yet to be properly investigated.
There are serious reasons to question the long-term effectiveness of President Bukele’s security measures, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said. Gangs have in the past benefited from mass incarceration by using prisons to recruit new members and consolidate their territorial control outside detention facilities. Failure to invest meaningful resources in prevention and reintegration policies, as well as to address illegal economies that allow gangs to thrive, have contributed to prolonged cycles of violence. In turn, past truces between the government and gangs have often caused only a short-term reduction of killings, followed by surges in gang violence.
The Bukele administration and the Legislative Assembly should adopt sustainable and rights-respecting steps to dismantle gangs and protect the population from their abuses, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal said. These include tackling the root causes of gang violence, including high levels of poverty and social exclusion, and conducting strategic criminal prosecutions focused on prosecuting higher-level gang leaders and investigating violent crimes.
The administration of US President Joe Biden and the European Union should rally multilateral pressure, including from governments in Latin America, to focus attention on the situation in El Salvador, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Foreign governments and international financial institutions, in particular the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica, BCIE), should suspend existing loans benefiting government entities directly involved in abuses, including the National Civil Police, the armed forces and the Attorney General’s Office, and the prison system.
Foreign governments should also step up efforts to support independent journalists and civil society groups.
“The international community should redouble its efforts to help ensure that Salvadorans are safe from heinous crimes by gangs, human rights violations by security forces, and other abuse of power,” Goebertus said.