It is common for some governments to exercise power based on the idea of homogeneity and its reverse: that the good guys are on this side and the bad guys are on the other. The government of Nayib Bukele has gone to great lengths to make people inside and outside of El Salvador believe that the 71,000 people arrested in the 19 months since a state of emergency was declared belong to the country’s powerful street gangs have cooperated with them in some way. He who owes nothing fears nothing, the government repeatedly states; those who go to prison must have done something to deserve it. This story, which has permeated among the population, is already showing cracks. The scrutiny of local NGOs and the international community has highlighted thousands of cases of arbitrary detention. Among these victims of injustice, a very specific profile of those being persecuted under the state of emergency stands out: activists and defenders of human rights.
Accused of being gang members, falsely pigeonholed into the ranks of Mara Salvatrucha (M-13) or Barrio 18, these detentions are politically motivated. The Bukele government has officially acknowledged that 6,000 people have been unjustly arrested under the state of emergency, a controversial measure in place since March 2022 to combat spiraling gang violence. So far there is no precise census of how many — among those who remain in prison and those who have been released — are human rights defenders. The cases brought to light so far have achieved some visibility thanks to the efforts of the NGOs themselves.
The Association for Social Economic Development (Ades), which is dedicated to the defense of natural resources, has been a target of government harassment. Five members of the organization, based in the mountainous department of Cabañas, were arrested and imprisoned in January, accused of having committed a homicide during El Salvador’s civil war period (1980-1992). The case is based on the testimony of a person who claims to have witnessed the crime, more than three decades ago. Ades has demanded the release of their colleagues. In late August, they managed to persuade a judge to alter the precautionary measure to house arrest. It was a small step forward, but the activists remain under trial, at the mercy of the monster that feeds on prisoners.
Vidalina Morales, the president of Ades, experienced firsthand the ravages of the persecutory regime when her 34-year-old son was arrested in May, accused of being a gang member. The alleged evidence: he was wearing shorts and has an alias, as gang members do. What is his alias? Rayo (Lightning), a nickname given to him as a child by the boys in his neighborhood, in mockery, because her son ran clumsily after the soccer ball, says Morales. The 55-year-old activist, with decades of experience in the environmental struggle, protested against the arrest and, with the support of her community, managed to get her son out of jail. The Public Prosecutor’s Office certified that, during the arrest and confinement, the young man was beaten by the police.
In addition to the arrests, President Bukele ordered the deployment of military checkpoints in Cabañas. Ades activists believe that there is a hidden agenda behind the persecution: that the government is seeking to reverse the ban on mining activity that has been in place in El Salvador since 2017. Alfredo Leiva, a member of the NGO, describes some of the signs. For example, Bukele created a General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines, with powers to grant mining exploration and exploitation permits. In addition, in May 2021, El Salvador joined an international forum based in Canada that promotes mining. The government did not report its incorporation into this entity, called IGF Mining, until months later, when some of its representatives visited the Central American country to provide “technical assistance.”
“The arrest of the comrades, the arbitrary actions, all the maneuvers that have taken place during these last few months, lead us to conclude that the government’s intention is to open up mining again,” says Leiva. “We are facing acts of criminalization of people who have been fighting against mining in Cabañas. These are actions to intimidate the communities that have in the past resisted the mining companies.”
Morales recounts how Ades’ activism and local communities succeeded years ago in stopping a gold mining project by Canadian company Pacific Rim, which is now owned by Australia’s Oceana Gold. The NGO’s actions contributed to the 2017 ban, which made El Salvador a global example against extractivism. “In these struggles, the first thing one expects is death, because we are fighting against power. In the past it was Pacific Rim; now it is more complicated, because today it is a state, which has an interest in reopening mining in consortium with transnational companies,” says the Ades leader. “That is why they are targeting our children, to intimidate us, to terrorize us. They are sending us a clear message; they want to weaken this struggle, this resistance in Cabañas against extractivist projects,” she explains.
Guilty for speaking out
The organization Socorro Jurídico Humanitario (SJH), based in San Salvador, the capital, has documented the systematic detention of activists. “The state of emergency regime is not biased; it is not only for criminals. They have captured people who are organized, trade unionists, representatives of workers in the informal sector, environmental defenders, people who denounce corruption and nepotism, or who denounce drug trafficking,” says Ingrid Escobar, director of the NGO.
Escobar gives as an example the case of Rodolfo Pereira, leader of the Soyapango merchants organization, who was arrested in June 2022. “Two days before he was due to give a press conference, the police arrived at his house and told him that they had received an anonymous tip-off that he was a gang member, and they took him away. To date, he is still in jail. We don’t know if he is alive. His family and his lawyer have not had the opportunity to talk to him,” says Escobar.
SJH has recorded the arrest of 17 union leaders from municipalities and government agencies, all accused of the crime of criminal association, and even terrorism. A further 146 union workers have been fired and 38 more have been suspended. The list keeps growing. Pressure from NGOs has resulted in 10 of the jailed leaders being released. One of those arrested, José Leónidas Bonilla, died in prison because he did not have access to treatment for the diabetes he suffered from (deaths from untreated illnesses have become common among prisoners). “He was not a gang member, he had no criminal record, he had never been in a prison, not even in administrative detention. He left behind a 15-year-old girl with a mental disability, and great suffering for his entire family and for us, his comrades,” Escobar says.
Socorro Jurídico shares offices in the capital with the National Civil Police Workers Movement (MTP). Its leader, Marvin Reyes, is a former agent who worked 21 years on the force. The NGO’s vocation has been to defend the labor rights of police officers, but in the Bukele administration it has become a platform for denouncing excesses committed in the fight against gangs. Because of their careers in the National Civil Police (PNC), active agents share internal complaints with Reyes.
“We have a colleague who was detained in June 2022 by order of the PNC general directorate. Arrested in the context of the state of emergency simply for sharing in a WhatsApp group — made up of members of the police — information about some colleagues who were demanding rest days. The director gave the order to detain him under the crime of incitement because, according to the PNC authorities, he was inciting others to rebellion,” says Reyes.
The MTP leader has denounced that commanders demanded a “quota” of arrests per day. “Each patrol had to capture two or three people per day. It got to the point that the chiefs would tell them: ‘Look, if you don’t come with the three detainees, you’d better not come back to the base. Until you have them all, you report back.’ Often, they wondered where they were going to get the quota. Then they began to arrest the homeless, the drunks, the drug addicts, the rockers. That’s how they took a lot of people.”
Reyes, who has already been the target of digital harassment from Bukele supporters, as well as bots, was on the verge of being arrested himself last Thursday. Police officers visited him at the offices of the NGO and “invited” him to file a complaint following comments he had made about internal corruption in the PNC. He believes this was a maneuver to lock him up. “This is a clear political persecution of dissident voices that point out aspects of corruption, of crimes being committed by public security institutions,” he said in a video. Reyes managed to avoid arrest on this occasion, but he has doubts that the truce will be lasting: “They can invent anything, they can take you to jail, and from there you can come out dead.”
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