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Both saw people die in their cells; both were tortured and spent months in overcrowded prisons with little food and no legal assistance. Two testimonies collected by EL PAÍS from people detained during the state of exception, which supports the war against gangs by the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, coincide with allegations of systematic abuses by national and international human rights organizations. Deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding, torture, arbitrary detentions, including minors, and total isolation from lawyers or family members. Manuel, a pseudonym for safety, is about 40 years old, and Dolores Almendares, 53, who has decided to publish her identity, spent months in prison accused of belonging to the maras. They were released due to a lack of solid evidence, but both are still awaiting trial. These are their stories.

Manuel says that in his case, the phrase explaining the darkness of the prison became literal: “From the moment I entered until I left, I never saw sunlight.” From mid-April last year until early February. Almost a year locked up in Izalco prison, about two hours west of the capital. In a cell built for 20 people where more than 70 were crammed. Due to a lack of space, inmates took turns sleeping and sitting up for two or three hours. There was only one toilet. It was common to receive only one meal a day: “two tortillas and a spoonful of beans.”

Among the cellmates, there was a diabetic person. “A 62-year-old man who had a store and cried a lot.” They let him sleep sitting all night while the others remained standing. One day, he didn’t wake up. They tried to move him, and he was ice-cold. When the guards arrived, he had no pulse. Manuel also claims that only “two or three times” a doctor came in to give him insulin injections, which, according to his account, his family sent him weekly. The lack of medical care in prisons is another violation of fundamental rights reported by organizations.

Manuel says that another prisoner, “a 21-year-old young man named Daniel,” also died in the cell. “He was desperate and screamed for medication, complaining of hunger and pain.” The police responded with beatings. Kicking with batons or with the butt of their rifles. “One day, they beat him so much that they killed him and dragged him out like an animal.”

A Human Rights Watch investigation, which accessed a database from the Ministry of Justice, revealed that during the first five months of the state of exception, from March to August, at least 32 people died in custody without clarifying the circumstances. Most were in Mariona and Izalco prisons, where Manuel was held. Another count by the Salvadoran organization Cristosal, this time until the end of October, raised the number of deaths to 80.

In addition to beatings, Manuel also speaks of another torture method. They would hose down the cell with water and, when the floor was wet, activate an electric shock gun “to catch us all.” Among the other prisoners he lived with were people with tattoos from the two gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. He says they were the ones most often taken to the punishment cells. “I didn’t talk to them because I hated them. I felt that I was there because of them.” Collective prayers were his only solace: “We prayed to God to give us strength and to help us get out of there.”

Dolores Almendares’ story is not very different. She was arrested in mid-2021 and spent six months in a women’s prison in Ilopango, east of San Salvador. “I went out to buy bread, and the police surrounded me. They said I was a gang member because I lived in a gang-controlled area,” she explains. “I was taken to a cell and beaten. They hit me in the face and body. I was punched, kicked, and spat on. They wanted to make me say I belonged to a gang, but it was not true. I’ve never been in a gang.”

In prison, she met many other women with similar stories. “They were housewives, mothers, and daughters who were accused of collaborating with the gangs.” In Ilopango, Dolores says she was lucky to sleep on a bed, but the overcrowding was just as bad as in the men’s prisons. She saw two inmates die. One had asthma and was not given any medication. The other, a woman in her late 30s, was beaten by the police. “They struck her and broke her head. They dragged her out of the cell and took her away.”

Both Manuel and Dolores, after being released, have received threats that they attribute to the police. The fear is palpable when they speak. Dolores is thinking of leaving El Salvador: “I don’t want to be arrested again, and I don’t want my daughters to live through this nightmare.” Manuel, on the other hand, wants to stay and fight for justice. “I want to see those who tortured me and those who killed Daniel, in jail. They cannot continue to do this to us. We are human beings.”

The Bukele government has always denied the allegations of human rights abuses in prisons. The president himself has stated on several occasions that the state of exception and his hardline approach against gangs has contributed to the reduction in the homicide rate in the country. But the voices of those who have suffered the consequences of the prison system, like Manuel and Dolores, continue to demand answers and justice.

The Bukele government’s crackdown on gangs has indeed led to reduced violence, but it has also raised concerns about human rights abuses and an increasing lack of transparency. Nearly 63,000 people have been arrested, according to a late January count by the Minister of Justice and Security, Gustavo Villatoro. The number is not random—it corresponds to the estimated number of gang members in a country of just six million inhabitants.

Since the beginning of the state of exception, critical police officers have revealed that they are given arrest quotas to reach this symbolic number, which the president often refers to. Of the total number of detainees, only 5% have been released, according to the president himself. Human rights organizations in the country report that only about a third of those arrested have proven ties to gangs. They also argue that criminal charges like belonging to a “terrorist organization” are so broad and vague that they allow for the arrest of virtually anyone.

Dolores was arrested by five police officers on May 6th of the previous year and accused of extortion. “They told me that my children were collecting rent from businesses, and I was gathering the money,” says this municipal employee of Cuscatancingo, a municipality on the northern outskirts of San Salvador. She explains that she was given a document with the charges but refused to sign it because “they had no evidence.” She asked to see a lawyer, but she did not receive any legal assistance during the five months she was imprisoned. Dolores, a union member, claims that her arrest was motivated by her leadership of several strikes demanding uniforms and wage increases.

Once at the police station, she was put in a cell with “girls who were stained. Some had the MS tattooed on their forehead.” She says she didn’t feel afraid because she “has never belonged to any of that.” Like Manuel, she chose not to speak with the other detainees because “keeping quiet helps you, and talking hurts you.” During her first night, she recalls that a police officer told her: “Now you are the target. I could shoot you now and say you were trying to escape.”

On her first day at the Ilopango prison, half an hour from the capital, she was lined up with other inmates. They stripped her, made her bathe in a barrel in the yard with 20 other women, scanned her, and inspected her genitals “in case she was carrying drugs or something like that, I guess.” Dolores spent 22 days in a 150-square-meter gallery with a sheet metal roof and metal grate walls. There were over 800 women there, according to her estimates, who slept tightly packed on the concrete floor. Each person’s head was at the foot of another. The toilet was a bucket, and the shower was a hose. The food was “dried bean paste.”

One of the prisoners, “Esmeralda,” had an infinity symbol on her neck. Dolores remembers that “everything she ate, she vomited. Plus, she suffered from diarrhea and ended up dying of dehydration.” When she lost consciousness, several inmates carried her because she was overweight. The police took her away, and she was never seen again. “They told us she died on the way to the hospital.” Human rights organizations also denounce that the authorities are not reporting the deaths of prisoners. There are even reports from family members who have found the bodies of their detained relatives in mass graves.

The stories of Manuel and Dolores are not isolated cases. At least 36,750 people have been arrested in El Salvador for alleged gang ties since the beginning of the state of exception, according to the Observatory of Access to Justice and Human Rights, a coalition of Salvadoran civil society organizations. In total, 48,000 people were arrested in the country for different reasons in 2022. The number of arrests has increased dramatically, especially considering that 9,000 people were detained during the entire year of 2021.

“The repressive policy and the discourse of hatred towards gangs have allowed the public to accept the massive arrests,” says Iván Posada, a lawyer who works with the local human rights organization CRISTOSAL. He explains that those arrested are victims of the war on gangs, which is becoming a “strategy of social control” because it is used as a pretext to criminalize union members, social activists, and “anyone critical of the government.” Posada says that it is a “constitutional violation” because the state of exception has been in place for more than a year, and the president has not asked for its extension in the Legislative Assembly, as required by law.

The government’s approach has also caused collateral damage. “Some families have had to flee their homes because they are accused of collaborating with gangs,” says Jeannette Aguilar, a sociologist and former director of the Public Opinion Institute at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University. Aguilar believes that the state of exception has led to a “climate of fear” and a “process of dehumanization of the population,” in which people are seen as potential criminals or informants.

The high number of arrests has overwhelmed the country’s prisons. In August 2022, there were 45,000 inmates in the 28 prisons in El Salvador, according to the General Directorate of Prisons. The facilities were built to house 18,000 people, meaning they are operating at more than double their capacity. The overcrowding problem is not new, but it has worsened with the crackdown on gangs. In some prisons, the situation has become so dire that inmates have to sleep in shifts due to the lack of space.

The Bukele administration does not seem to be concerned about the criticisms of its strategy. On the contrary, the president often takes to social media to show off his tough-on-crime approach, like when he shared images of gang members arrested in a massive police operation. “We are going to put them all behind bars. The party is over,” he wrote on Twitter. But for many Salvadorans, like Manuel and Dolores, the consequences of the government’s war on gangs are far from being a celebration.

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Los abusos en las cárceles de Bukele: “Lo mataron a golpes en la celda y lo sacaron a rastras como a un animal”

Los dos vieron gente morir en su celda, los dos fueron torturados y pasaron meses en cárceles hacinadas, sin apenas comida y sin la asistencia en ningún momento de un abogado. Dos testimonios recogidos por EL PAÍS de personas detenidas durante el régimen de excepción, que ampara la guerra contra las pandillas del presidente de El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, coinciden con las denuncias de abusos sistemáticos por parte de organismos de derechos humanos nacionales e internacionales. Muertes bajo custodia, hacinamiento extremo, torturas, detenciones arbitrarias, incluyendo menores de edad e incomunicación total con abogados o familiares. Manuel, nombre ficticio por seguridad, de unos 40 años, y Dolores Almendares, de 53, que sí ha decidido publicar su identidad, pasaron meses en prisión acusados de pertenecer a las maras. Los liberaron ante la falta de pruebas contundentes, pero ambos siguen a la espera de juicio. Estas son sus historias.

Manuel cuenta que, en su caso, el tópico para explicar la oscuridad de la cárcel se convirtió en literal: “Desde que entré hasta que salí no vi la luz del sol”. Desde mediados de abril del año pasado hasta principios de febrero. Prácticamente, un año encerrado en el penal Izalco, a unas dos horas al oeste de la capital. En una celda para 20 personas donde había metidas más de 70. Ante la falta de espacio, los presos se turnaban para dormir sentados en tandas de dos o tres horas. Había un solo retrete. Era habitual que solo recibieran una comida al día: “dos tortillas y una cucharada de frijol”.

Entre los compañeros de celda había una persona diabética. “Un señor de 62 años que tenía una tienda y que lloraba mucho”. A él, cuenta Manuel, lo dejaban dormir sentado toda la noche mientras el resto seguía de pie. Un día, no despertaba. Trataron de moverlo entre varios y estaba helado. Cuando llegaron los custodios, ya no tenía pulso. Manuel asegura también que solo “dos o tres veces” entró un médico a pincharle las inyecciones de insulina que, según su versión, la familia le enviaba todas las semanas. La falta de asistencia médica en las cárceles es una más de las vulneraciones de derechos básicos que denuncian las organizaciones.

Manuel cuenta que otro de los presos, “un joven de 21 años al que llamaban Daniel”, también murió en la celda. “Estaba desesperado y pedía medicamentos a gritos o se quejaba de hambre y de dolor”. Los policías respondían con golpes. A patadas, con las macanas (porras) o con la culata de los fusiles. “Un día le pegaron tanto que lo mataron a golpes y lo sacaron a rastras como a un animal”.

Una investigación de Human Rights Watch, que tuvo acceso a una base de datos del Ministerio de Justicia, reveló que solamente durante los cinco primeros meses del régimen de excepción, de marzo a agosto, se registraron al menos 32 personas muertas bajo custodia sin aclarar las circunstancias. En su mayoría en los penales de Mariona e Izalco, donde estuvo preso Manuel. Otro recuento de la organización salvadoreña Cristosal, esta vez hasta finales de octubre, elevó el número de muertes a 80.

Además de los golpes, Manuel habla también de otro método de tortura. Eran habituales los manguerazos de agua dentro de la celda y, cuando el suelo estaba mojado, activaban la pistola de corriente eléctrica “para que nos agarrara a todos”. Entre el resto de los presos con los que convivió había personas con tatuajes de las dos pandillas, MS-13 y Barrio 18. Dice que eran a los que más se llevaban a las celdas de castigo. “Yo no hablaba con ellos porque les tenía odio. Sentía que yo estaba ahí por ellos”. Eran comunes los rezos colectivos. “El soporte nuestro era la fe”. Cuenta que especialmente uno de los presos, cristiano evangelista, era el que más rezaba por todos. “El enemigo más grande que uno tiene ahí dentro es la depresión. Sientes un vacío inmenso y solo deseas morir”.

A Manuel lo detuvieron a finales de marzo, pocos días después de iniciar el régimen de excepción, que dura ya un año. Según su versión, fue una venganza de unos policías. Un par de años antes, unos agentes habían golpeado a su hijo de 10 años porque no llevaba identificación cuando volvía de comprar tortillas durante la pandemia. Él los denunció y un juez los acabó condenando. En represalia, 10 policías se presentaron en su casa con una orden de captura. Ese mismo día empezaron las palizas que duraban “hasta que se aburrían”. Le rompieron dos costillas. Pero lo que más le dolió a este administrativo, que hasta su detención trabajaba en una oficina rellenando documentos de Excel y haciendo fotocopias, es que lo presentaron ante la prensa como a un pandillero detenido bajo cargos de extorsión, homicidio y pertenencia a organización terrorista.

El operativo de Bukele está logrando el objetivo de reducir la violencia y desarticular a las pandillas. Pero también está rodeado no solo de denuncias de abusos a los derechos humanos, sino de un cerco cada vez más grande de opacidad. Son casi 63.000 detenidos, según un recuento a finales de enero del ministro de Justicia y Seguridad, Gustavo Villatoro. La cifra no es casual. Corresponde al número estimado de pandilleros en un país de apenas seis millones de habitantes.

Desde el inicio del régimen, policías críticos han revelado que les imponen cuotas para alcanzar ese número simbólico de detenciones al que el presidente hace constantes referencias. Del total de reclusos han sido liberados un 5%, según declaraciones del propio presidente. Las organizaciones de derechos humanos del país denuncian que apenas un tercio de los detenidos tienen vínculos comprobados con las pandillas. Y que tipos penales como el de pertenencia a “organización terrorista” son tan amplios e imprecisos que abren la puerta detener prácticamente a cualquier persona.

A Dolores la detuvieron cinco policías el 6 de mayo del año pasado acusada de extorsión. “Me dijeron que mis hijos cobraban la renta a los comercios y yo juntaba el dinero”, cuenta esta ordenanza del ayuntamiento de Cuscatancingo, un municipio de la periferia norte de San Salvador. Explica que le dieron un acta con los cargos, pero que ella no la firmó porque “no tenían ninguna prueba”. Pidió ver a un abogado, pero no tuvo asistencia legal en los cinco meses que pasó encarcelada. Dolores, miembro de un sindicato, denuncia que su detención fue motivada por liderar varias huelgas para que les dieran uniformes y les subieran en sueldo en su trabajo.

Una vez en la comisaría, la metieron en el calabozo con “muchachas que estaban bien manchadas. Algunas tenían la MS tatuada en la frente”. Dice que no sintió miedo porque ella “nunca ha pertenecido a nada de eso”. Igual que Manuel, decidió no hablar con las otras detenidas porque “callar te da y hablar te quita”. Durante la primera noche, recuerda que un policía le dijo: “Ahora ustedes son el blanco. Les puedo pegar un tiro ahora mismo y decir que se querían fugar”.

El primer día en la cárcel de Ilopango, a media hora de la capital, la pusieron en fila con otras presas. La desnudaron, la hicieron bañarse en un barril en el patio junto a otras 20 mujeres, la pasaron por un escáner y le revisaron el interior de sus genitales “por si llevaba droga o algo así, supongo”. Dolores pasó 22 días en una galería de 150 metros cuadrados con techo de lámina y las paredes de reja metálica. Allí había más de 800 mujeres, según sus cálculos, que dormían apretadas en el suelo de cemento. Cada una con la cabeza a la altura de los pies de la otra. El baño era una cubeta y la ducha, una manguera. La comida era “pasta reseca de frijol”.

Una de las presas, “la niña Esmeralda”, tenía un tatuaje con el símbolo de infinito debajo de la nuca. Dolores recuerda que “todo lo que comía, lo vomitaba. Además, sufría de diarrea y acabó muriendo deshidratada”. Cuando perdió el conocimiento, la cargaron entre varias reclusas “porque estaba gordita”. Se la llevaron las policías y nunca la volvieron a ver. “Nos dijeron que se murió de camino al hospital”. Las organizaciones de derechos humanos denuncian también que las autoridades no están notificando el fallecimiento de los presos. Existen incluso denuncias de familiares que han encontrado el cadáver de sus parientes detenidos en una fosa común.

olores aún pasó tres meses más en el penal de Apanteos, a una hora y media de la capital. “Ahí nos trataron un poco mejor. Podíamos salir una hora al patio, nos daban tres comidas y entraban a veces algunos curas”. Durante todo el tiempo que pasó encarcelada, tuvo dos audiencias telemáticas. Sin la presencia de testigos ni abogados. La soltaron a mediados de septiembre y tiene que presentarse en la comisaría cada dos semanas. El juicio está fijado para el 8 de diciembre, pero su abogado le ha dicho algo que todavía no tiene muy claro si debe darle esperanza: “Si se termina el régimen antes, los que hemos salido quedaremos libres del todo”.

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