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Rights group: Leaked El Salvador data confirm abuses


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Human Rights Watch says it has obtained a leaked database from the government of El Salvador confirming massive due process violations, severe prison overcrowding and deaths in custody under the emergency powers introduced last March to a to cope with a wave of gang violence.

The global human rights organization said Friday that the Ministry of Public Security’s database contains details of about 50,000 people arrested between the implementation of the state of emergency at the end of March and the end of August.

A spokesman for the president said they had not seen the report Friday and had no comment.

El Salvador’s legislative assembly approved the suspension of a number of fundamental rights following an outbreak of violence by the country’s powerful street gangs. People no longer have to tell why they are being stopped or what rights they have or access a lawyer. The government also suspended the right of association.

Many of the abuses have previously been reported by Human Rights Watch and local civil society organization Cristosal, but government data added some detail. It contained the names of those arrested, their age and gender, the charges they face, the prisons they were sent to and where they were arrested.

For example, those arrested during that period included more than 1,000 minors placed in pretrial detention. In March, the country’s Legislative Assembly lowered the age of criminal responsibility for gang-related crimes from 12 to 16.

The database also pointed to staggering levels of overcrowding in El Salvador’s prisons. The government is building a massive new facility, but in the meantime more and more inmates are crammed into existing prisons awaiting trial.

By August, the prison population had grown to more than 86,000, while they had a capacity of 30,000 in February 2021, according to government information.

The government reported in November that 90 people had died in detention since March.

The most common charge against those arrested is “unlawful association”, accounting for some 39,000 of the new cases. More than 8,000 are accused of membership in a terrorist organization.

“The use of these broadly defined crimes opens the door to arbitrary arrests of people who have no relevant ties to gangs, and contributes little to justice for violent gang abuses, such as murders and rapes,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. .

Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro recently said that no international organization would tell El Salvador how to solve its problems and that the number of detentions shows that the strategy has been successful.

Violent crime has dropped dramatically in El Salvador and public opinion polls have shown broad support for the tough measures.

For years, gangs controlled large parts of the country. They usually controlled who came and went from neighborhoods, including whether government departments had access. The gangs also mercilessly extorted local businesses and aggressively recruited into their ranks.

The government reported 495 homicides in 2022, the lowest figure in decades. The government has not counted at least 120 killings committed by security forces against suspected gang members. Still, that total pales in comparison to the country’s 6,656 homicides in 2015.

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