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The Women Searching for Their Sons in the Dark - ElFaro.net
 

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Felícita Aquino carries with her a bag of shoes and clothing for José Roberto Aquino, her 32-year-old son arrested on Monday, April 25, in Zacatecoluca, La Paz, where he worked for a group of doctors. The following Wednesday, she stood outside of the town’s supermarket begging for the loose change she needed to buy the clothing, as well as her bus fare to make the 65-kilometer ride to Mariona Prison in the hopes of receiving word of her son.

El Salvador’s state of exception, enacted on March 27 on the heels of the most violent weekend in two decades, has denied thousands of women access to their most basic need: information. Women crowd around the country’s prisons and jails in search of any trace of their sons, grandchildren, partners, and fathers.

More than 20,000 people have been arrested and can be held for up to 15 days without seeing a judge or accessing legal counsel. The police union has denounced arrest quotas, and Human Rights Watch and their Salvadoran counterpart Cristosal co-published a report that found “evidence of grave abuses” including 160 arbitrary detentions. In some cases, rank-and-file officers argued that they were simply “following orders from above.” The mass arrests have overloaded the prisons. The Public Defender’s Office has collapsed under the strain of supplying attorneys to the thousands of detainees.

On a dirt road outside Izalco Prison in Sonsonate, dozens of women from around the country endure the sun and rain for days as they search for any shred of information about their family members detained during the state of exception. Most of the women crowded around the prison either tend to their homes or are informal workers who set aside their jobs to begin their search. For many of them, the arrest in question meant the loss of income to cover daily expenses. Some have resorted to sleeping in the streets, while others join forces to amass a few dollars to crowd into a hotel room overnight and continue waiting.

The amount of detainees released every day after attending mass virtual pre-trial hearings can be counted on two hands. Some of the women waiting outside have gone weeks without knowing where their family members are being held. They wait outside with the hope that perhaps a police officer will tell them something —anything— or that their family member will walk out. They do so without even knowing whether they have come to the right place.

 

Dozens of people travel every day to Izalco Prison in search of their family members detained during the state of exception. Most of those waiting for hours under the sun or in the rain are women looking for their sons, husbands, fathers, grandsons, and brothers. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Dozens of people travel every day to Izalco Prison in search of their family members detained during the state of exception. Most of those waiting for hours under the sun or in the rain are women looking for their sons, husbands, fathers, grandsons, and brothers. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

Like many other women waiting outside of La Esperanza Prison (more widely known as
 
Like many other women waiting outside of La Esperanza Prison (more widely known as "Mariona"), this woman, 59, prefers not to identify herself by name. She sells shoes for a living in the coastal towns near Puerto El Triunfo, Usulután. On April 11 the police arrested her son, Óscar Armando Lozano, 33, as he was coming home from collecting his weekly farmworker’s wages. Since then, she has waited outside of the prison for information about her son. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

 

 

Every morning, dozens of women arrive at the Public Defender’s Office in search of information on the cases of their detained family members and to seek out a public defender able to take on their case. Most of them boarded the first bus to arrive in the early morning. The nine women in this group traveled to the capital from Cojutepeque, San Vicente, Ilobasco, and Usulután. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
Every morning, dozens of women arrive at the Public Defender’s Office in search of information on the cases of their detained family members and to seek out a public defender able to take on their case. Most of them boarded the first bus to arrive in the early morning. The nine women in this group traveled to the capital from Cojutepeque, San Vicente, Ilobasco, and Usulután. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

 

 

Women approached the new cell block in Mariona to try to catch a glimpse of their family members as detainees poked their heads out of the windows. The Prison Bureau responded by sealing the windows with a layer of sheet metal. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
Women approached the new cell block in Mariona to try to catch a glimpse of their family members as detainees poked their heads out of the windows. The Prison Bureau responded by sealing the windows with a layer of sheet metal. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

 

 

María González, 65, has traveled to Izalco Prison for four days in a row with the hope that they will free her son, detained on March 30 in San Salvador. She withholds his name for his safety: “My son is the breadwinner of my home. He’s a metal worker. Now we are living on his savings. This is a grave injustice,” she said before calling over her son’s partner to say that the authorities were about to let him go. By the end of the day, though, no detainees had been released. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
María González, 65, has traveled to Izalco Prison for four days in a row with the hope that they will free her son, detained on March 30 in San Salvador. She withholds his name for his safety: “My son is the breadwinner of my home. He’s a metal worker. Now we are living on his savings. This is a grave injustice,” she said before calling over her son’s partner to say that the authorities were about to let him go. By the end of the day, though, no detainees had been released. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

“I’ll give you information, but do me a favor and break it up,” a guard standing at the gate outside Mariona told the crowd. “I recommend you come back in two weeks to ask. You can give me the name, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do anything for you. There are thousands of detainees. I recommend that you wait and have patience.” Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
“I’ll give you information, but do me a favor and break it up,” a guard standing at the gate outside Mariona told the crowd. “I recommend you come back in two weeks to ask. You can give me the name, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do anything for you. There are thousands of detainees. I recommend that you wait and have patience.” Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

 

 

In this group of women is Roxana Peña. She came to look for her son and stopped to see whether he would step out of a bus that transferred prisoners from Mariona to their hearing in San Salvador. She set aside her job at a cafeteria in Colonia Santa Lucía in Ilopango to handle her son’s case, and has spent over $300 on legal paperwork and on the first round of attorney’s fees. She declined to mention her son by name out of fear that authorities will retaliate against him. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
In this group of women is Roxana Peña. She came to look for her son and stopped to see whether he would step out of a bus that transferred prisoners from Mariona to their hearing in San Salvador. She set aside her job at a cafeteria in Colonia Santa Lucía in Ilopango to handle her son’s case, and has spent over $300 on legal paperwork and on the first round of attorney’s fees. She declined to mention her son by name out of fear that authorities will retaliate against him. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

 

 

Gloria Marina Flores López, 64, lives in a home of sheet metal and wood in Cantarrana, Santa Ana. She is the mother of Marvin Alexander Flores, 29, who graduated from the Central American University’s Political Training School in 2019 and is seeking a degree in social work from the Lutheran University. Marvin, the sole provider in the household, supported his family thanks to a scholarship and his work as an event photographer. On April 24, he was arrested in Colonia La Esmeralda, Santa Ana, while visiting his partner. He was handcuffed along with his brother-in-law and sent to Mariona Prison. Gloria is now alone, and an injured knee has prevented her from traveling. She is now getting by on the generosity of her neighbors. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Gloria Marina Flores López, 64, lives in a home of sheet metal and wood in Cantarrana, Santa Ana. She is the mother of Marvin Alexander Flores, 29, who graduated from the Central American University’s Political Training School in 2019 and is seeking a degree in social work from the Lutheran University. Marvin, the sole provider in the household, supported his family thanks to a scholarship and his work as an event photographer. On April 24, he was arrested in Colonia La Esmeralda, Santa Ana, while visiting his partner. He was handcuffed along with his brother-in-law and sent to Mariona Prison. Gloria is now alone, and an injured knee has prevented her from traveling. She is now getting by on the generosity of her neighbors. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

“Rumors run wild” on the street leading to Izalco Prison, says one police officer. “Despite how much you tell these women not to come, they will always find their way here,” he added as a group of women crowded around a patrol car at night on April 28 when they learned that none of their family members would be freed that day. “You try to understand their perspective, because of course a mother or a wife would do it for a man, but we can’t do anything to help them here.” Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
“Rumors run wild” on the street leading to Izalco Prison, says one police officer. “Despite how much you tell these women not to come, they will always find their way here,” he added as a group of women crowded around a patrol car at night on April 28 when they learned that none of their family members would be freed that day. “You try to understand their perspective, because of course a mother or a wife would do it for a man, but we can’t do anything to help them here.” Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

At night on April 27, four men were released from Izalco Prison who had been arrested in different parts of El Salvador during the state of exception. One of them, still wearing the standard white prison garb and named Julio, wrapped his arm around his partner as they ran in the rain. She, five months pregnant, had waited two days for him outside of the prison before he was released. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
At night on April 27, four men were released from Izalco Prison who had been arrested in different parts of El Salvador during the state of exception. One of them, still wearing the standard white prison garb and named Julio, wrapped his arm around his partner as they ran in the rain. She, five months pregnant, had waited two days for him outside of the prison before he was released. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

Rain poured down on Izalco, Sonsonate, on the night of April 27. Data from the Ministry of the Environment shows that the town in western El Salvador was among those that received the most precipitation in the country that day. Despite the weather, dozens of women, some of them pregnant or accompanied by children, arrived from departments including San Miguel, Usulután, and San Salvador to see if their family members would be released. Most come from families unable to pay for daily transportation and joined together in groups of ten to pay the $30 to escape the rain in a hotel room. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Rain poured down on Izalco, Sonsonate, on the night of April 27. Data from the Ministry of the Environment shows that the town in western El Salvador was among those that received the most precipitation in the country that day. Despite the weather, dozens of women, some of them pregnant or accompanied by children, arrived from departments including San Miguel, Usulután, and San Salvador to see if their family members would be released. Most come from families unable to pay for daily transportation and joined together in groups of ten to pay the $30 to escape the rain in a hotel room. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

By 7:30 at night on April 27, the four men released from Izalco had already been reunited with their families. Noelys González continued waiting in the storm, along the edge of the dirt road leading to the prison facility, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her brother, a cab driver arrested on April 7 in Juayúa, Sonsonate. She had no idea how she would return home that night. “I don’t know if I’ll leave here on foot or sleep here in the street. I was hoping my brother would be released today, and I’ll stay here. Maybe he’ll show. Every day dozens of women trod down this path with the same hope. Most of them end the day frustrated and exhausted from the heat and seasonal rain. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
By 7:30 at night on April 27, the four men released from Izalco had already been reunited with their families. Noelys González continued waiting in the storm, along the edge of the dirt road leading to the prison facility, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her brother, a cab driver arrested on April 7 in Juayúa, Sonsonate. She had no idea how she would return home that night. “I don’t know if I’ll leave here on foot or sleep here in the street. I was hoping my brother would be released today, and I’ll stay here. Maybe he’ll show. Every day dozens of women trod down this path with the same hope. Most of them end the day frustrated and exhausted from the heat and seasonal rain. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

 

 

*Translated by Roman Gressier