“Hands up. If they take them down, we’re going to kill them (…). Only if they’re lucky will they get out of here alive.”

Thus begins the testimony of a 20-year-old man who was detained during the exceptional regime in El Salvador, a measure that has been in force for 14 months and that it is responding to President Nayib Bukele’s so-called “war on gangs”.

The young man, who was released after being declared innocent, talks about the alleged ill-treatment he and other inmates were subjected to while in Mariona Prison: “As they knelt, they laid electric shocks and one even took blood. When they entered the sector where they were to meet, the guards beat them again.”

The case is one of many included in the report on the first year of the emergency regime carried out by Christthe main organization defending the human rights of civil society in the Central American country, which was presented this Monday.

This is an exhaustive study, based on hundreds of interviews with people held for months who were released after they were declared innocent, relatives of prisoners and experts, and after these testimonies were contrasted with forensic medical documents and police records.

And in addition to collecting testimonies, it concludes that since March 27, 2022 – when the measure came into effect – dozens of prisoners have died from torture, ill-treatment or lack of health care in the country’s prisons.


Abuses and deaths

In particular, Cristosal has documented the deaths of 153 people in state custodyall detained during the emergency regime.

Of these, 29 died a violent death and another 46 due to “probable violent death” or suspicion of “crime,” the report specifies, and the presence of cuts, bruises showing beatings, wounds with sharp or blunt objects or signs of strangulation or hanging from corpses.

As an example, he cites the case of a 52-year-old man, owner of a shop and a mill, who was harassed for years by gang members and forced to provide them with food, who was arrested on charges of collaborating with them.

Relatives and organizations complain that many of the detainees are innocent. GETTY IMAGES Photo: BBC World

According to the obituary of the Institute of Legal Medicine of El Salvador, “he died of cerebral edema,” the Cristosal report says.

While, Salvadoran authorities they have declared the official information in this regard confidential and claim that prison deaths are from natural causes.

“I have heard the opposition say that people are dying in prisons. And that we somehow kill the prisoners or leave them to die […] But people die in prisons as they die outside because they get sick, because they get old; there are those who have terminal illnesses, etc.,” Bukele said himself during a live broadcast on Oct. 16 last year.


Exception regime

The emergency regime was imposed in El Salvador in response to 76 murders recorded in just 48 hours in March last year.

According to media research such as The lighthousethe spate of killings was the product of the breach of an alleged pact between the government and the gang of MS-13.

Although the US Attorney’s Office itself referred to this dialogue in a recent accusation against gang leaders, the Salvadoran government has always denied having engaged in any kind of negotiation.

In the past year, which saw the suspension of the right to privacy of communications and guarantees of due process, such as the requirement that any detainee must be brought before a judge within 72 hours of arrest, more than 68,000 people have been detained for their alleged relationship with the gangs.

With a population of 6.3 million people, these mass arrests turned El Salvador into the country with the highest prison population of the world.

Relatives and organizations complain that many of the detainees are innocent.

In an exclusive interview offered to the BBC in March to mark the first year of the emergency regime, Vice President Félix Ulloa acknowledged that, with an operation of this magnitude underway, it is possible that a mistake has been made and that some people arrested without ties to the Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18.

Although he emphasized:More than 90% of the population agrees with the state of emergency and wants it to be extendedand the only ones complaining are the activists who don’t know what is happening in the country and the political opposition.”

“The permanent suspension of constitutional guarantees under the guise of the emergency regime is the only instrument of public policy applied by the government,” denounces Cristosal.