Both watched people die in their cells, both were tortured, and spent months in overcrowded prisons, with hardly any food and never the assistance of a lawyer. Two testimonies collected by El PAÍS from people detained during the emergency regime, which protects the war against the gangs of the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, coincide with the denunciations of systematic abuses by national and international human rights organizations. Deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding, torture, arbitrary arrests, including minors, and total lack of communication with lawyers or relatives. Manuel, a fictitious name for security reasons, in his 40s, and Dolores Almendares, 53, who has decided to publish her identity, spent months in prison accused of belonging to the gangs. They were released due to the lack of conclusive evidence but both are still awaiting trial. These are their stories.
Manuel recounts that, in his case, the cliché to explain the darkness of the prison became literal: “From the moment I entered until I came out I did not see the light of the sun.” From mid-April last year to early February. Almost a year locked up in the Izalco prison, about two hours west of the capital. In a cell for 20 people where there were more than 70. Due to the lack of space, the prisoners took turns to sleep sitting up in batches of two or three hours. There was only one toilet. It was common for them to only receive one meal a day: “two tortillas and a spoonful of beans.”
Among the cellmates was a diabetic person. “A 62-year-old man who had a store and who cried a lot.” He, Manuel says, was allowed to sleep sitting up all night while the rest remained standing. One day, he didn’t wake up. They tried to move him between several and he was frozen. When the guards arrived, he no longer had a pulse. Manuel also assures that only “two or three times” did a doctor come in to give him insulin injections that, according to his version, the family sent him every week. The lack of medical assistance in prisons is one of the violations of basic rights denounced by organizations.
Manuel recounts that another of the prisoners, “a 21-year-old boy who was called Daniel”, also died in the cell. He “He was desperate and screamed for medicine or complained of hunger and pain.” The police responded with blows. With kicks, with the batons (batons) or with the butt of the rifles. “One day they beat him so badly that they beat him to death and dragged him out like an animal.”
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An investigation by Human Rights Watch, which had access to a Ministry of Justice database, revealed that during the first five months of the emergency regime alone, from March to August, at least 32 people died in custody without clarifying the circumstances. circumstances. Mostly in the Mariona and Izalco prisons, where Manuel was imprisoned. Another tally by the Salvadoran organization Cristosal, this time through the end of October, brought the number of deaths to 80.
“You just want to die”
In addition to beatings, Manuel also talks about another method of torture. The hoses of water inside the cell were common and, when the floor was wet, they activated the electric current gun “so that it would catch us all.” Among the rest of the prisoners with whom he lived there were people with tattoos from the two gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. He says that they were the ones who were taken to the punishment cells the most. “I didn’t talk to them because I hated them. I felt like I was there for them.” Collective prayers were common. “Our support was faith.” He says that especially one of the prisoners, an evangelical Christian, was the one who 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.
Manuel was arrested at the end of March, a few days after starting the emergency regime, which has lasted for a year. According to his version, it was revenge by some policemen. A couple of years earlier, some agents had beaten his 10-year-old son because he was not wearing identification when he returned from buying tortillas during the pandemic. He denounced them and a judge ended up condemning them. In retaliation, 10 policemen showed up at his house with an arrest warrant. That same day the beatings that lasted “until they got bored” began. They broke two ribs. But what hurt this clerk the most, who until his arrest worked in an office filling out excels and making photocopies, is that he was presented to the press as a gang member on charges of extortion, homicide and belonging to a terrorist organization.
Bukele’s operation is achieving the goal of reducing violence and dismantling gangs. But it is also surrounded not only by denunciations of human rights abuses, but also by a growing circle of opacity. There are almost 63,000 detainees, according to a count at the end of January by the Minister of Justice and Security, Gustavo Villatoro. The number is not accidental. It corresponds to the estimated number of gang members in a country of barely six million inhabitants.
Since the beginning of the regime, critical policemen have revealed that quotas are imposed on them to reach that symbolic number of arrests to which the president makes constant references. Of the total number of inmates, 5% have been released, according to statements by the president himself. The country’s human rights organizations report that only a third of those detained have proven links to gangs. And that criminal types such as belonging to a “terrorist organization” are so broad and imprecise that they open the door to arrest practically anyone.
“I can shoot you right now”
Dolores was arrested by five police officers on May 6 of last year accused of extortion. “They told me that my children collected rent from businesses and I collected the money,” says this ordinance from the Cuscatancingo city council, a municipality on the northern outskirts of San Salvador. 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 she had no legal assistance in the five months she spent in jail. Dolores, a union member, denounces that her arrest was motivated by leading several strikes to get them uniforms and raise their wages at her job.
Once at the police station, they put her in the dungeon with “girls who were well stained. Some had MS tattooed on their foreheads”. She 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 because “silence gives you and talking takes away.” On the first night, she remembers a policeman telling her: “Now you are the target. I can shoot them right now and say they wanted to escape.”
The first day in the Ilopango prison, half an hour from the capital, they lined her up with other prisoners. They stripped her naked, made her bathe in a barrel in her yard along with 20 other women, put her through a scanner and checked the inside of her genitals “in case she was carrying drugs or something, I guess.” Dolores spent 22 days in a 150-square-meter gallery with a tin roof and metal mesh walls. There were more than 800 women there, according to her calculations, who slept tightly 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, “the Esmeralda girl”, had a tattoo with the infinity symbol under the nape of her neck. Dolores remembers that “everything she ate she vomited. She also suffered from diarrhea and she ended up dying of dehydration ”. When she lost consciousness of her, she was carried between several inmates “because she was chubby”. From her 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 also denounce that the authorities are not notifying the death of the prisoners. There are even complaints from relatives who have found the corpse of their detained relatives in a common grave.
Dolores still spent three more months in the Apanteos prison, an hour and a half from the capital. “They treated us a little better there. We could go out to the patio for an hour, they would give us three meals and sometimes some priests would come in”. During all the time that she spent in prison, she had two telematic hearings. Without the presence of witnesses or lawyers. She was released in mid-September and she has to report to the police station every two weeks. The trial is set for December 8, but her lawyer has told her something that she is still not very clear about whether she should give her hope: “If the regime ends before then, those of us who have left will be completely free.”
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