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The rampant abuse in El Salvador’s prisons: ‘They beat him to death in the cell and dragged him out like an animal’

Two former inmates talk to EL PAÍS about the terrors they saw while imprisoned in the country’s jails, which are at breaking point due to Bukele’s controversial crackdown on gangs

A group of detainees at the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT).
David Marcial Pérez

Deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding, torture and arbitrary arrests. These are just some of the many accusations that have been leveled against the Salvadoran government of Nayib Bukele, who has held the country in a state of emergency for over a year as part of his controversial crackdown on gang violence. EL PAÍS spoke with two former inmates, who confirmed the systemic abuses denounced by international and national human rights organizations. Both watched people die in their cells, both were tortured, and both lived in overcrowded prisons, with hardly any food and without ever speaking to their family or lawyer.

Manuel, a fictitious name for security reasons, and Dolores Almendares, who agreed to go public, spent months in prison after being accused of being gang members. They were released due to the lack of conclusive evidence, but both are still awaiting trial. These are their stories.

Dolores Almendares in the streets of San Salvador.
Dolores Almendares in the streets of San Salvador.Víctor Peña

Manuel says he did not see the sun for nearly a year. He was detained in Izalco prison, about two hours west of San Salvador, from mid-April last year to early February. “From the moment I entered until I came out, I did not see the light of the sun,” he says. In a cell meant for 20 people, there were more than 70. Due to the lack of space, the prisoners took turns sleeping sitting up in periods of two or three hours. There was only one toilet. And often they only received one meal a day: “two tortillas and a spoonful of beans.”

Among his cellmates was a diabetic person, “a 62-year-old man who had a shop and who cried a lot,” says Manuel, who is in his 40s. Manuel says the prisoners let the man sleep sitting up all night, while the rest remained standing. One day, he didn’t wake up. They tried to move him, but he was frozen. When the guards arrived, he no longer had a pulse. Manuel says that only “two or three times” did a doctor come in to give him the insulin injections, which his family reportedly sent him every week. The lack of medical assistance in prisons is one of the many abuses denounced by human rights organizations.

Manuel recalls that another prisoner, “a 21-year-old boy who was called Daniel,” also died in the cell. “He was desperate and screaming for medicine or complaining of hunger and pain.” The police responded by beating him. He was kicked, smacked with batons and hit with the butt of rifles. “One day they beat him so badly that they beat him to death and dragged him out like an animal.”

The feet of Manuel, who decided not to reveal his identity.
The feet of Manuel, who decided not to reveal his identity.Víctor Peña

An investigation by Human Rights Watch, which had access to a Ministry of Justice database, revealed that at least 32 people died in custody in the first five months of Bukele’s state of emergency, from March to August. Most of the deaths took place in Mariona and Izalco prison. Another count by the Salvadoran organization Cristosal brought the number of deaths as of October to 80.

"You just want to die"

In addition to beatings, Manuel also mentions another method of torture. He says that officers would often hose cells down with water, and once the floor was wet, would send an electric current to shock everyone inside. Manuel was imprisoned alongside men with tattoos from El Salvador’s two main gangs: the 18th Street gang (Mara Barrio 18) and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). He says that they were the ones who were most-often taken out for punishment. “I didn’t talk to them because I hated them. I felt like I was there because of them.” Group prayer sessions were common. “Our support was faith.” He says that one of the prisoners, an evangelical Christian, prayed the most for everyone. “The biggest enemy that one has in there is depression. You feel an immense emptiness and you just want to die.”

El Salvador Bukele
Police transport detainees during the emergency regime.Víctor Peña

Manuel was arrested at the end of March, a few days after the start of the state of emergency. According to Manuel, he was arrested out of revenge. He explains that a couple of years earlier, officers had beaten up his 10-year-old son because he did not have ID on him when he returned from buying tortillas during the pandemic. Manuel reported the officers, and a judge ended up sentencing them. In retaliation, 10 policemen showed up at his house with a warrant for his arrest. That same day, he was beaten “until [the officers] got bored.” They broke two ribs. But for Manuel — who before being arrest worked in an office filling out excels and making photocopies — what hurt the most was that he was presented to the press as a gang member charged with extortion, homicide and belonging to a terrorist organization.

Bukele’s operation is achieving its goal of reducing street violence and bringing down the gangs. But it is also dogged by allegations of human rights abuses, as well as lack of transparency. As of January, nearly 63,000 people have been arrested in the crackdown, according to Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro. There is nothing casual about this number: it is the estimated number of gang members in El Salvador, which is home to just under six million people.

Police officers critical of the regime have revealed that they are given arrest quotas to meet. Only 5% of inmates detained under the state of emergency have been released, according to Bukele. But according to human rights organizations in the country, only a third have proven links to gangs. What’s more, they argue that crimes such as belonging to a “terrorist organization” are so broad as to include almost anyone.

"I can shoot you right now"

Dolores, 53, was arrested by five police officers on May 6, 2022, on charges of extortion. “They told me that my children collected money from businesses and I collected it,” says Dolores, an office worker in Cuscatancingo city council. She explains that they gave her a document with the charges, but that she did not sign it because “they did not have any proof.” She asked to see a lawyer but received no legal assistance in the five months she was incarcerated. Dolores, a union member, says she was arrested for leading several strikes to raise wages and receive uniforms.

Three people wait for a detained family member in front of El Penalito headquarters in San Salvador.
Three people wait for a detained family member in front of El Penalito headquarters in San Salvador. Víctor Peña

Once at the police station, officers put her in a cell with heavily tattooed inmates. “Some had MS tattooed on their foreheads.” Dolores says that she was not afraid because she “has never belonged to any of that.” Like Manuel, she decided not to talk to the other detainees. On the first night, she remembers being told by a policeman: “Now you are the target. I can shoot you right now and say you wanted to escape.”

On the first day in Ilopango prison, half an hour from San Salvador, they lined her up with the other prisoners. They stripped her naked, made her bathe in a barrel in the yard along with 20 other women, put her through a scanner and carried out a vaginal search “in case I had drugs or something, I guess.” Dolores spent 22 days in a 150-square-meter cell with a tin roof and metal mesh walls. Dolores estimates that there were more than 800 women there, sleeping side by side on the cement floor. Each with their heads at the height of the other’s feet. The toilet was a bucket and the shower was a hose. The food was “dry bean paste.”

One of the inmates, Esmeralda, had a tattoo with the infinity symbol under the nape of her neck. Dolores remembers that “she vomited everything she ate.” She also suffered from diarrhea and ended up dying of dehydration. When she lost consciousness, she was carried by several inmates “because she was chubby.” The police took her away, and they never saw her again. “They told us that she died on the way to the hospital.” Human rights organizations have spoken out against authorities for not reporting the death of prisoners. Several people have filed complaints after finding the corpse of their detained relative in a common grave.

El Salvador's government transfers gang members to new mega-prison, in Tecoluca.
El Salvador's government transfers gang members to new mega-prison, in Tecoluca.SECRETARIA DE PRENSA DE LA PRESI (REUTERS)

Dolores spent three more months in Apanteos prison, an hour and a half from San Salvador. “They treated us a little better there. We could go out to the patio for an hour, they would give us three meals a day and sometimes a priest would come in.” During the time she spent in prison, she only had two remote hearings, where there were no witnesses or lawyers. She was released in mid-September and has to report to the police station every two weeks. Her trial is set for December 8, but her lawyer has told her: “If the regime ends before then, those of us who are out of prison will be completely free.” She’s not sure whether this should give her hope or not.

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