SAN SALVADOR – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the government of El Salvador Thursday to respect human rights, after authorities declared a state of emergency and rounded up 14,000 suspected gang members.
The arrests often appear arbitrary, according to the commission, part of the Organization of American States.
“Many of the detentions have been carried out illegally, arbitrarily and through the use of violence, ” the commission said in a statement. Detainees are often picked up “for belonging to criminal groups
Gang members held at Salvadoran prisons have been put on reduced food rations, denied mattresses and frog-marched around.
The state of emergency declared in late March restricts the right to gather, to be informed of rights and have access to a lawyer. It extends to 15 days the time that someone can be held without charges.
The commission warned the government that even with the decree, “its power is not unlimited, because it has the duty at all times to act in accordance with applicable rules and respect the rights of all of those under its jurisdiction.”
Rights groups have expressed concerns that innocent people are being caught up in sweeps targeting the notorious violent street gangs.
In late March, the gangs were blamed for 62 killings in a single weekend, a level of violence the country of 6.5 million has not seen in years. In response, President Nayib Bukele sought congressional approval for the emergency decree; since then, he has also established a raft of other measures.
Among other things, they lengthened sentences, reduced the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
El Salvador’s congress has authorized prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for news media that reproduce or disseminate messages from the gangs, alarming press freedom groups.
Bukele has filled his social media platforms with photos of handcuffed and bloodied gang members. At the same time, he has lashed out at human rights organizations and international agencies critical of some measures.
For example, Bukele has taken to calling Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy organization, “Homeboys Rights Watch.”
Gangs control swaths of territory through brutality and fear. They’ve driven thousands to emigrate to save their own lives or the lives of their children who are forcibly recruited. Their power is strongest in El Salvador’s poorest neighborhoods where the state has long been absent. They are a drain on the economy, extorting money from even the lowest earners and forcing businesses that can’t or won’t pay to close.