At least 153 people jailed since El Salvador instituted emergency powers in March 2022 to confront the country’s powerful street gangs have died in state custody, according to a report released Monday by the human rights group Cristosal.
None of those who died had been convicted of a crime they were accused of at the time of their arrest. There were four women among the victims and the rest were men.
The deaths were the result of torture, and systematic and serious injuries, the report said. Nearly half of the victims suffered violent deaths. Some of the deaths showed signs they resulted from deliberate denial of medical assistance, medicine and food, including some deaths resulting from malnutrition.
The deaths revealed punitive policies carried out by guards and prison officials. The report stated that such actions would have required authorization and backing by the highest level security officials.
The government has not provided an official count of deaths among the incarcerated.
The special powers approved by El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in March 2022 following a surge in gang violence suspend some fundamental rights, such informing someone of their rights at the time of arrest and the reason for their, as well as having access to a lawyer.
Cristosal said it compiled the information through field work, including at common graves, and collecting documents from medical examiners. Investigators also interviewed victims’ families and neighbors, as well as others who were jailed and later released.
The organization called on the administration of President Nayib Bukele to answer about the conditions people are held under, respect due process, free the innocent, answer for those who have died, provide all available information to victims’ families and end the measures implemented under the special powers.
Officially, the government has arrested more than 68,000 people under the special powers since March 2022. More than 5,000 people have been freed because they could not convince a judge they were tied to criminal structures, according to authorities.
Other human rights groups and foreign governments have condemned the government’s actions and called for a lifting of what were supposed to be temporary measures.
Bukele, however, maintains high levels of approval within El Salvador for his actions against the gangs.