Members of the Salvadoran armed forces placed parts of La Libertad and the intersecting national highway under a 48-hour military lockdown effective Friday evening, April 17, shutting off access to the local food market servicing the coastal town’s more than 65,000 residents and thousands more from three surrounding towns. Francisco Merino Monroy, minister of defense, deployed units from the navy, the army’s cavalry regiment, and the joint task force codenamed ‘Volcano’ to the port town following orders from President Nayib Bukele issued over Twitter earlier that day.
The blockade of Puerto de La Libertad—the town’s boardwalk district, a bastion of tourism in El Salvador—contradicts the COVID-19 response measures adopted by the Legislative Assembly that, in article 2, empower the ministry of health to take necessary action to preempt outbreaks in areas with documented cases of the virus. La Libertad, however, has not registered a single case to date. Bukele called for the “sanitary lockdown,” according to the press secretary, because of the large number of residents had been violating the domestic quarantine—an assertion based on a video he retweeted in the same thread in which he issued the order to the minister of defense.
The military lockdown caught residents by surprise, preventing them from leaving home over the weekend to stock up on essential goods. The president’s order also contradicts the rulings of the Constitutional Chamber upholding the right to leave home to trade and purchase essential goods, as well as prohibiting arbitrary detention. When Attorney General Raúl Melara traveled to the town on Saturday afternoon to investigate allegations of abuse of authority under the lockdown, a military leader refused to divulge information about the operation and a local policeman told him that the department had not received any legal documents backing the lockdown. According to the policeman, they received orders to prevent people from leaving home even to buy medicine, except in “absolute emergencies.”
As Carlos Martínez wrote about Attorney General Raúl Melara visit to the locked-down city:
The attorney general’s mere presence, even if he had stayed silent, was a statement in itself. He could have sent any of his attorneys to carry out the investigation, but decided to go in person and call a press conference about what, under other circumstances, might be considered a routine inspection. To the keen observer, his presence was a not-so-subtle reminder to government actors that he is still working during the pandemic, that he is asking and fielding questions. “Rulings from the [Constitutional] Chamber are not up for debate; they are to be obeyed,” he stated, in reference to recent court decisions upholding the right to break quarantine on certain grounds and condemning arbitrary detentions.
The attorney general’s trip to La Libertad on Saturday, which comes just days after President Nayib Bukele announced his refusal to comply with the Chamber’s attempts to rein in his emergency response, was a reminder that no pandemic would dissuade him from his duty to investigate crimes, in whatever form and by whatever hand: that of soldiers, ministers, or even the president himself.
*Translated by Roman Gressier