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Tortured and strangled in El Salvador: Report denounces the hell of Bukele's prisons


Highlights: Cristosal, the main human rights organization in the Central American country, describes a regime of terror based on interviews with hundreds of people arrested and released after being declared innocent. Dozens of prisoners died from torture, beatings, mechanical asphyxiation by strangulation, injuries or simply left to die for lack of attention to deadly sufferings. The authorities, for their part, have declared official information confidential in this regard and have limited themselves to ensuring that all deaths inside the prisons are due to natural causes.

Cristosal, the main human rights organization in the Central American country, describes a regime of terror based on interviews with hundreds of people arrested and released after being declared innocent

Dozens of prisoners died from torture, beatings, mechanical asphyxiation by strangulation, injuries or simply left to die for lack of attention to deadly sufferings. That is the main result of an exhaustive investigation carried out by Cristosal, the main organization in defense of human rights of civil society in El Salvador, after a year of the emergency regime launched by the Government of President Nayib Bukele in its so-called "war against gangs".

The report made public on Monday represents the most forceful investigation carried out to date and its results describe a scenario of terror. For its realization, the institution interviewed hundreds of people who remained prisoners for months in prisons under the emergency regime and who were released after being declared innocent and also relatives of the inmates who died in prison since the application of this measure. Cristosal also contrasted the testimonies with forensic medical documents, police documents and photographs. The authorities, for their part, have declared official information confidential in this regard and have limited themselves to ensuring that all deaths inside the prisons are due to natural causes.

The document presents accounts of survivors who recount torture inside prisons. For example, they were forced to pick up food from the floor with their mouths, given electric shocks, or exposed to epidemics of skin fungus for a long time and without treatment. "Massive and systematic rapes are already a state policy. The suspension of rights and militarization is no longer an exception but a norm that affects the lives of all Salvadorans," Noah Bullock, director of Cristosal, an organization that has been denouncing human rights violations in the Central American country for more than two decades, told EL PAÍS.

153 deaths of inmates

Cristosal has documented the deaths of 153 inmates in state custody between March 27, 2022 and March 27, 2023, all captured in the same period. Of these, 29 died of violent death and another 46 from "probable violent death" or suspicion "of criminality". In the days after March 23 of this year, more cases of deceased prisoners have been reported that did not enter this count.

In those 75 cases, the investigation indicates as a "common pattern" the presence of lacerations, bruises that show blows, wounds with sharp or blunt objects, or signs of strangulation or hanging on the corpses. According to the report, death from mechanical asphyxiation is one of the "most frequent" causes described in medico-legal reports.

One of the most obvious cases is that of a 30-year-old man who was delivered dead to his relatives with a bulge in his neck. The medico-legal ruled that he died of "mechanical asphyxiation by strangulation." There is also the case of a 42-year-old man who died in a police bartolina or dungeon whose autopsy determined as the cause of death "mechanical asphyxia by hanging".

Mechanical asphyxiation or immersion is one of the methods of torture that was used in El Salvador by security forces during the civil war between 1970 and 1992. "It is deeply sad to see that the state has again resorted to arbitrary detention and torture in the name of national security," Bullock said.

Gang members wait to be transferred to their cells at the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador, on March 15, 2023.Press Secretariat of the Presidency (Reuters)

Other bodies showed other signs of torture. As in the case of a 32-year-old man who was delivered dead to his relatives and, in his autopsy, the medical examiner determined as the cause of death a "severe blunt chest blunt trauma." According to the report, the body had deep wounds on the elbow, blows to the forearm and a wound of approximately eight centimeters on the left side of the head.

In other cases, according to the investigation, people died from untreated life-threatening illnesses or lack of access to medicines. Like a 50-year-old woman detained while suffering from liver disease. "Although her family took the medicines to the prison where she was held, they were not received and when her family asked about her they replied that if she needed medicine, the doctor would let them know," the report says.

Hidden figures

The death toll revealed by Cristosal could fall short, according to the same report. The investigation found that in 39 of the 153 cases, medical examiners do not clearly establish the cause of death. This is what happened to a 23-year-old man who died on April 18, 2022: "The body showed signs of blows in various parts of the body, breaks in the feet and hands, sores on the back in an elongated burn-like shape, which shows that he could have been a victim of torture. The body was delivered to the family in a closed coffin," the report said. The coroner's report established that it was a "sudden death".

The report also reveals that, in some cases, the cause of death established by medical examiners does not match the previous health conditions of the deceased.

For example, a 42-year-old woman died of "immunosuppressive septic shock caused by nasal carcinoma," a kind of drowning from a tumor, according to the autopsy; But his family never knew he had cancer. Or a 44-year-old man, a farmer, who was detained for four months and after the last month died in a hospital from "pneumonia", according to the autopsy, but his body had sores and he had lost a lot of weight to the point of being "unrecognizable" by his relatives.

Another fact that may increase the figure is that some prisoners are being buried in mass graves without prior notice to their families. This was detected in at least four cases by Cristosal. "A 45-year-old man with intellectual disabilities was transferred deceased to Legal Medicine with different surnames so he was buried in a common grave in the Memorial Park (Cemetery) La Bermeja. The obituary of the legal medical examination states that he died as a result of 'pulmonary edema'; However, forensic photographs show that the body had edema on the face. Interviewees reported that he was beaten inside the prison where he was held, kicked in the stomach causing him to expel blood from his nose and mouth, causing him to lose mobility and be unable to eat; did not receive medical attention," the report says.

One of the main demands of the relatives of detainees during the emergency regime is the lack of information on the whereabouts of their prisoners, thus placing them in a situation of disappeared persons who are not registered by the justice system. In addition, many prisoners who are released after being declared innocent do so in deplorable health conditions that ultimately lead to their death. As a 24-year-old arrested in May 2023. After seven months locked up in the prison known as Mariona, he called his relatives warning that he was in serious condition in the hospital with stomach pains. His relatives found him deteriorated and in the bones.

Days after being admitted to the hospital, the young man was subjected to a special hearing in a court. The judge in the case told the relatives that she had two pieces of news: the good news was that the young man was declared innocent. The bad news is that he now had chronic kidney failure. Two days after being released, the young man died.

Features of torture on the back of a Salvadoran prisoner. Courtesy

Electric shocks, beatings and punishment cells

The report also includes horrific accounts of former prisoners who spent months in emergency prisons and were eventually found not guilty.

According to the testimonies gathered in the investigation, overcrowding, beatings and ill-treatment are the daily bread in El Salvador's emergency prisons.

A 20-year-old detainee at the Mariona center said that a guard they called Montaña constantly threatened to kill them. "Only if you are lucky will you get out of here alive," he told them. "While they were kneeling they gave them electric shocks and one even had blood drawn. When they entered the sector where the guards were going to stay, they were beaten again," the report says.

Another type of torture inside Bukele's prisons has to do with the cleanliness and living conditions of the inmates. According to the study, "in some cases they are only allowed to drink a glass of water during the day."

A 20-year-old man who was detained in Mariona said: "One day a guard came with a bucket of food and said, 'Are you hungry? When they answered yes, the custodian threw the food on the ground that was full of mud and told them: 'You are going to pick it up only with your mouth and if you grab it with your hands, I am going to take you out and I am going to beat you' and gave you five seconds to pick up the food with your mouth. With the hunger and what he had told us, we had to eat it from there, only with our mouths. Then he stepped aside... When he returned, the custodian said: "The dogs were hungry."

In that same week, according to the story, foreign representatives of a human rights organization entered the prison, but a guard had previously warned them not to complain: "Tomorrow visitors will come and the first artist who comes out saying the deal from here, is the first who is going to die with electric shocks."

Another type of torture revealed by the report, as reported by survivors, is solitary confinement. These cells "are used for those who complain, talk at night or when they do not heed the instructions of the guards, sometimes for no reason," the document says. These cells are smaller, usually dark and not seen in light, have no cots, sometimes no pit or toilet, receive almost no water to drink and are not allowed to bathe. Several detainees claim that some of those who go to these cells return in a state of malnutrition or do not come out alive," the report says.

One of the survivors recounted his experience in that cell: "There they gave a meal time, beans with a tortilla, first in hand, then in a tupperware. When they left there they took him to the Malnutrition area, there they treated them well so that they recovered and then took them to beat again. As 20 days after being there he had a stroke, when he woke up they took him to the hospital, his mouth was on his side, he felt tremor and tingling in his face, "says the report.

Prison officers watch gang members as they are processed upon arrival at the Counter-Terrorism Confinement Center.PRESS SECRETARY OF THE PRESIDENCY (via REUTERS)

More than a year of state of emergency

The Bukele government has maintained a state of emergency since March 27, 2022 in response to gang violence. The move came after the Mara Salvatrucha-13 and Barrio 18, the country's two largest gangs, staged a massacre that left 87 dead on the streets in a single weekend. According to journalistic investigations, the massacre was due to a rupture of the pact that Bukele maintained with the gangs since the beginning of his administration, something that kept violence at bay.

Since the beginning of its application, the emergency regime has been harshly criticized by national and international human rights organizations, not only because the measure has been prolonged beyond what the law allows, but because in practice it allows the systematic violation of human rights.

For his part, Bukele has responded to criticism by disqualifying anyone who questions his measure and has gone so far as to call human rights organizations "defenders of gang members." However, not all of the nearly 67,000 captured are actually gang members. Of these, at least 5,000 have already been released, according to authorities.

For human rights defenders, the measure takes El Salvador back to the past. "In Salvadoran history, states of exception are nothing new. They are preferred instruments of social control and political repression of the military dictatorships of the past. Today is a worrisome and pitifully known scenario of the darkest times of Salvadoran history. You can already see self-censorship. People don't talk anymore. Every Salvadoran now knows that any encounter with a police officer can end in his capture and being subjected to conditions of torture to death," Bullock said.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-05-29

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