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Gang Expert Flees El Salvador after Intimidation from Bukele

Days after the passage of a law to criminalize media using gang sources, officials and even the president are smearing and threatening journalists with criminal investigations. El Faro journalists and a renowned expert on gangs, who left the country for his safety, have been at the center of these attacks. The IACHR asked El Salvador Wednesday to revise the text of the law and the U.S. State Department cited escalating restrictions on the press in its annual report detailing human rights abuses in El Salvador.

Friday, April 15, 2022
El Faro English

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President Nayib Bukele, cabinet members, legislators, and others affiliated with his party are publicly threatening to use the recently passed gag order against sharing messages or images from gangs, and have singled out members of El Faro who have covered the administration’s gang negotiations. 

On April 8, three days after the law was passed, a self-identified member of Nuevas Ideas, Kevin Sánchez, announced on Twitter that he planned to file charges against two El Faro journalists, Óscar Martínez and Gabriela Cáceres, for “replicating gang-related messages with the goal of stoking fear in the population.” He included a screenshot of Cáceres’ April 5 article that revealed MS-13 leader, alias “Crook,” was freed from a Salvadoran prison even though he was wanted for extradition in the U.S. and faced additional charges.

Then, on April 11, Bukele tweeted a recent interview by anthropologist and journalist Juan Martínez explaining the role of gangs in Salvadoran society as “filling an unfortunate but necessary function” in some marginalized communities. Bukele called Martínez “trash” and his comments “absurd.”

The president's tweet led to online harassment and threats, including that of criminal persecution. Prisons Director Osiris Luna, the subject of multiple El Faro investigations into corruption who has been sanctioned by the U.S. for negotiating with gangs, replied to Bukele’s tweet calling Martínez a “terrorist” and a “spokesperson” for the gangs. Martínez then left the country because of death threats and fear of an unfair judicial process against him.

President Nayib Bukele gives a speech at the entrance to the Legislative Assembly, prior to the military occupation of the Assembly on February 9, 2020. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera
President Nayib Bukele gives a speech at the entrance to the Legislative Assembly, prior to the military occupation of the Assembly on February 9, 2020. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera

Juan Martínez is a long-time contributor to U.S. outlet Insight Crime, and has also collaborated with El Faro and Factum, among others. He is one of the leading academics who has studied and explained gangs as a social phenomenon in El Salvador.

“The president put me, my family, and my sources at risk, but the gravest of all this is that there is a state propaganda apparatus committed to intimidating the journalistic profession,” Martínez told El Faro English. He underscored that his departure is temporary.

Along with his brother, Óscar, who is editor-in-chief of El Faro, he published in 2019 the book “The Hollywood Kid,” which has been translated into a handful of languages including German, Italian, and Polish. For his first book, Ver, Oír y Callar (See, Hear, and Stay Silent), in 2012 he spent a year living in MS-13 territory in El Salvador to document the gang’s internal dynamics. 

“Juan has risked his life as almost no one has to explain the phenomenon of the gangs, which mark the life and death of millions of Central Americans,” tweeted Mexican journalism collective Dromómanos. “Now it’s the president of his country who is putting him in danger. All of our support, @juan_martinezd.”

Numerous Latin American journalists condemned these actions as part of a broader government strategy to silence and criminalize the free press in El Salvador. “They’re following the recipe: When they don’t know who to blame, they point their finger at the journalist,” tweeted acclaimed Mexican human rights journalist Marcela Turati. “This is textbook behavior from this government.”

The threats also extended to other journalists and media outlets, including the false accusation from state media that one person arrested for being a gang member is the brother of freelance and former Revista Factum journalist Bryan Avelar, who has no brothers. “The strategy of linking journalism to gangs doesn’t just open the possibility of arbitrary detentions of journalists,” Revista Factum said in an editorial. “It is also a desperate attempt by the government to keep citizens from seeing them for what they are: a fraud.”

“Silence only favors dictators,” tweeted journalist Juan Carlos Bow of Nicaraguan outlet Confidencial, referring to the gag order and recent threats against Salvadoran journalists.  

'Risks of Severe Criminalization'

In a statement April 13, the Office of the Special Rapporteur of Press Freedom within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated that the “reforms, as they were written, activate risks of severe criminalization of activities that are legitimate, and that are of particular transcendence for democratic life, like journalism, the defense of human rights, parliamentary activity, and academic investigation.”

The special rapporteur criticized the vague language of the gag order and called on the Salvadoran government to adapt the law to international standards.

“Democratic understanding of matters of general interest —including public security— requires legal certainty that people can participate freely and in an informed way in the matters that concern them without fear of criminalization,” the statement continued.

The IACHR also questioned authorities’ claims that the gag order was necessary on public security grounds.

The U.S. State Department and human rights groups spoke out against Bukele’s intensifying press crackdown following the country’s most murderous day in two decades, and the ensuing state of exception and claims of mass arrests of more than 10,000 alleged gang members in 17 days.

Family members, mostly women, travel to overcrowded detention facilities in search of their detained relatives, who under El Salvador
Family members, mostly women, travel to overcrowded detention facilities in search of their detained relatives, who under El Salvador's state of exception can be held for up to 15 days without cause. Many bring breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them for their loved ones behind bars. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

“We condemn the increased gang violence and homicides in El Salvador,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on April 10. “We also urge the Government of El Salvador to uphold due process and protect civil liberties, including freedoms of press, peaceful assembly, and expression.'

Bukele retorted: “I have a journalist friend, he wants access to Gitmo to exercise his “freedom of the press” rights, and check if the detainees have enjoyed their “civil liberties” and a “due process”. You have terrorists that threaten you, and we have terrorists that threaten us.”

The State Department’s 2021 human rights report documented the continued violence and harassment against journalists in El Salvador under Bukele’s government, including the audit of El Faro and the case of a journalist from El Diario de Hoy who was hit by a policeman while covering a crime scene.

It cited various examples of the government censorship, such as the case of a mass grave in Chalchuapa, in which a court heeded a request of the Attorney General’s Office in ordering Revista Factum to take down an article that contradicted the government’s narrative because it allegedly violated a law protecting victims’ rights.

The report also named the expulsion of El Faro editor Daniel Lizárraga and denial of El Faro English reporter Roman Gressier’s work permit as examples of censorship.   

“The increased villainization of the role of media inspired supporters of the president to threaten journalists as well,” the report said. 

In an editorial published April 9, titled “Silence Is Not an Option,” El Faro’s Editorial Board condemned the gag order law proposed by Bukele and approved by his party. “The legalization of censorship is an attack against the freedoms of the press and expression without precedent since the end of the civil war.” 

“The gangs are not the real objective of the regime,” tweeted Salvadoran human rights defender David Morales this week, “but rather the total control of the population and political system. The dictatorship is arriving.”

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