In the bed of the pickup, the eight boys tried to avoid the blows, but it was impossible. They weren’t blindfolded, but they couldn’t see the road, and the soldiers wouldn’t let them lift their heads or take their hands off the backs of their necks. Every sharp turn, sudden brake, or rut in the road meant more jostling and more pain, as the boys thrashed and banged into the truck and each other. There were eight of them, all between the ages of 14 and 17. They had been abducted from their homes as they slept and tossed like trash bags into the back of the pickup. It was hard to breathe — even harder when the soldiers sitting on the side rail hit them and pushed down on their heads.
That night, November 5, the pickup truck — an unmarked, grey, extended cab Hilux —entered the community of Amando López, in the municipality of Jiquilisco, at 7 p.m. The drivers and passengers were all soldiers, which was unusual, given that to legally carry out an arrest warrant, they would have had to be accompanied by at least one police officer. The pickup bounced along the muddy, potholed streets of the small rural town, stopping at each house, banging on each door, and asking for Ricardo, Carlitos, Roberto, Marlon, Daniel, Adonay, Edwin, and Emerson, until they found them all. “The young man will have to come with us,” a soldier told the father of 16-year-old Daniel after knocking violently on the front door of their tin-shack home. The dogs in the neighborhood barked non-stop, until about 11 o’clock, when the soldiers were done with their raids and the pickup drove off into the forest with the eight boys in the back.
The truck followed the paved road out of town before abruptly making a U-turn. They were no longer heading north, toward the Pan-American Highway, but south, toward the coast and Jiquilisco Bay. One of the boys was 16-year-old Emerson. He could feel his leg starting to fall asleep when the truck turned around. The U-turn gave him a bad feeling. “We thought we were going to El Zamorán, where the police station is… but when the truck turned around and we started heading back, we got scared. We thought, ‘then where are they taking us?’ We didn’t say anything in the moment, because we knew they’d just hit us if we said anything, but we thought we were going there to die, because they were taking us who knows where.”
Meanwhile, a store on the road that splits south from the Pan-American Highway was closing down and clearing out its last customers. “Sometimes we stay here until pretty late at night. That day, I don’t remember why, but we stayed even later,” says Jeyli Sánchez, the 29-year-old sister of José Ricardo, one of the boys taken by the soldiers. An uncle called her cell phone.
—Jeyli, hurry up, get back here, they took your brother.
—What? No, that can’t be. Who took him?
—‘Who’? Don’t you know those guys who’ve been harassing them the last few days?
—They took him? I’ll be there right away…
Human Rights Ombudsman confirms arbitrary arrests
Most accounts of what happened in Bajo Lempa on the night of November 5 —the version of events shared by news outlets, on social media, and in communiqués denouncing the arbitrary arrests— go like this: A group of students from Amando López had staged a community theater performance dramatizing the history of the country’s civil war. The soldiers, angry at the students for the content of the play, which depicted the Salvadoran Army losing some battles to the FMLN guerilla forces, decided to arrest eight of the students in retaliation. The hour-long play is performed every year on October 30, as part of the community’s annual celebration of the Day of Resistance. Roughly 40 students from different grades reenact chapters from Salvadoran history, from the conquest to the early post-war years.
Due to a lack of information from the Army, it has been impossible for El Faro to determine whether this was actually what prompted the soldiers to carry out the raids on November 5. One thing that is clear, however, is that even before the performance on October 30, soldiers had committed other acts of aggression against the same teenagers, and against others in the community. The men responsible for those earlier instances of harassment were a group of four soldiers who had begun patrolling the area in mid-October.
According to six residents interviewed by El Faro, those same soldiers had briefly detained the boys during a dance that took place on October 29 in the neighboring community of La Canoa, and again on November 2, as they were walking home through the streets of Amando López after laying flowers for their dead, and then again, on November 4, while they were playing a soccer game at the local community field. Each time, the soldiers ordered them to stay standing with their legs spread and their hands behind their necks. They removed the boys’ shirts to look for tattoos, photographed their faces, searched through messages and pictures on their phones, and hit them in the head and ribs as they interrogated and humiliated them. They asked the boys if they were gang members, and demanded they provide the names of their leaders. And each time, finding no evidence connecting the boys to any gang, they beat them up and then let them go on their way.
One of the young men, 26-year-old José Óliver González, was walking home from work when the soldiers stopped him, berated him, and then cut his hair off with a knife. Then, on the night of November 5, the eight boys were taken to a military base in the forest and subjected to one to two hours of beatings, insults, forced exercise, and death threats.
El Faro contacted the Salvadoran Army’s press office on November 21 via telephone to request comment. The head of public relations insisted that the request be made via email. El Faro sent an email that same day, and then a WhatsApp message later that evening, and had yet to receive a response at the time of publication.
The Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH), which has opened an investigation into the case, agreed to share some of its initial findings with El Faro. Over WhatsApp on November 15, the PDDH claimed that the eight arrests in Amando Lopez violated the boys’ civil right to freedom. “When the PDDH was made aware of the allegedly arbitrary detentions, the Ombudsman […] communicated directly with the Attorney General, apprising him of the situation and the possible consequences that an improper action by elements of the Armed Forces, who were responsible for the initial arrests, could have.” According to the PDDH, Ombudsman Raquel Guevara assessed her management of the situation as “a success, because they had restored the right to freedom that had been initially violated.”
In response to a second request for comment concerning the reports of torture, on November 21, the PDDH told El Faro that they had been unable to confirm any of the boys’ accusations of mistreatment: “In none of the interviews conducted by PDDH personnel were there any references to torture or other cruel treatment; the Ombudsman cannot rule out its occurrence, but, this [torture] has not appeared in the evidence that our office has collected to date.” The PDDH says that it is still investigating the case, that ‘no definitive conclusions have been made,’ and that they have already interviewed the implicated soldiers, as well as the police officers who interviewed the victims, relatives, local witnesses, and other “people related to the case.”
The PDDH added that it had also requested that the Armed Forces and the Attorney General’s Office “open an investigation into the actions of the military personnel who carried out the arrests, in order to determine potential responsibility.” The PDDH maintains that, if the boys were released — as they were 24 hours after their arrest, on the night of November 6 — it was only thanks to their efforts. “The Ombudsman received a positive response from the Attorney General, who tasked a prosecutor to go to the location and take charge of the legal situation with the detained minors. That same prosecutor, on the same day, secured their release.”
Testimonies from the victims gathered by El Faro indicate that the pain and discomfort the boys suffered during the pickup truck ride was only the beginning of a long night of abuse, and would not come close to being the worst experience they would suffer that night.
The arrests completely broke the community. It was the most troubling and shocking incident the town had experienced in years, according to several residents interviewed by El Faro. In Amando López —a poor, rural community of about 135 families, with dirt streets and small homes made of tin and other scrap material— everyone agrees that in the past six years, gangs have almost completely disappeared from the area. In the eight months since the government declared a “state of exception” and soldiers and police began rounding up alleged gang members across El Salvador, only two people had been arrested in the community. In the country as a whole, the number of reported arrests has now surpassed 58,000.
But Amando López is one of 49 communities in this region of Usulután, known as the Bajo Lempa, or lower Lempa River valley, where the government’s state of exception has been enforced with particular ferocity. According to the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEB), a local grassroots human rights group, some 300 people have been detained in the Bajo Lempa since the start of the state of exception, of which 111 are neither gang members nor gang collaborators, as the government alleges. “We have all the documentation needed to prove the innocence of those 111 people, but we’ve exhausted all avenues for judicial recourse. We’ve presented habeas corpus petitions and now we’re publicly requesting their release,” said José Salvador Ruiz, leader of the CEB in Bajo Lempa, during a press conference on November 15. One of these 111 cases is that of José Duval Mata, who received a letter two months ago from a court in San Miguel authorizing his release, but who remains behind bars. He is currently in “Phase 3” maximum security at Izalco prison.
The Bajo Lempa is an area that was repopulated in the aftermath of the Salvadoran Civil War by ex-combatants from the FMLN guerilla forces. It is a low-lying floodplain at the mouth of the Lempa River, where every year, rains and upstream dam releases cause massive flooding. “We are a focal point of resistance to the policies of the current government, at an organizational level,” Ruiz says. “This is why they’re trying to intimidate us, by making these arrests, so that the organization falls apart.”
“We don’t know anything, go back to bed.”
Minutes after the boys were taken, their families began gathering at the police station in El Zamorán, anxiously waiting for the soldiers and the boys to arrive. Those few minutes of anticipation only added to their anguish.
“At the police station, they told us they didn’t know anything about any arrests, and I got even more scared and upset, because there are so many stories now about people being taken away, killed, and no one knowing anything, or they disappear them,” says Jeyli, the sister of José Ricardo, one of the boys taken that night. “The soldiers were the ones who arrested them. There wasn’t a single policeman with them, they didn’t have a marked patrol car, it was just that grey pickup.”
At least 80 people arrested under El Salvador’s state of exception have died in prison, without having been convicted of a crime, and without the authorities providing any explanation for their deaths. The only explanation available is limited to the patterns suggested by the autopsies: multiple deaths are still “under study,” but many of the corpses showed signs of “pulmonary edema,” a condition that can occur, for example, when a person is strangled. On November 17 and 18, the U.N. Committee against Torture requested an explanation from the Salvadoran government regarding numerous reports of torture in prisons. The Bukele administration has denied the accusations, stating that torture is not part of official prison policy.
“We kept asking the police to tell us where the boys were, and they just said they didn’t know anything about it. They told me, ‘Look, calm down, give me your number, and if they bring them here, I’ll give you a call. Now go home and go back to bed,’” Jeyli remembers them telling her. “Well,” she responded, “we’re going to wait for them, no matter what time it is, and you’d better call the soldiers and do something to help us.”
Then, other parents and family members started arriving to the police station, and Jeyli realized that there were more people missing, not just her brother.
Tortured in an abandoned house
Around 11 p.m., with all eight boys in the back of the pickup, the soldiers drove to a property located in the nearby community of San Juan del Gozo, near Jiquilisco Bay, about an eight-minute drive from Amando López. The property, according to the four victims who spoke with El Faro, was a walled-in courtyard with a partially collapsed, rubble-filled building, with no roof, windows or front wall. The boys described the place as feeling “very dark.” There was also a more intact adjoining building, with a door and windows, illuminated by a single lightbulb.
“When we got there, I felt my foot slip. I couldn’t feel it at all, and I fell,” says Emerson. “The place stank, like blood or dead animals,” Daniel remembers. “They lined us up facing a wall, shining their light on us and messing with us, saying things like, ‘Ooh, wow, look at these little girls standing like that, they can barely stay awake. Hey you little shits, don’t you dare fall asleep!’ And they kept yelling at us to not fall asleep, telling us to make ‘el candado,’ and so we started embracing each other like that,’ Daniel says. To form “el candado,” or “the padlock,” the boys lined up shoulder to shoulder, then put their arms over the shoulders of the person next to them. “And then they told us to do 100 push-ups, but when we went down, they made us stay like that, on the ground, for a long time until suddenly they’d say, ‘go! up!,' and then we would push up, but they’d immediately yell at us to drop down. So we did about 30 push-ups like that, but then they told us we hadn’t done any, and made us start over,” Daniel says.
There is little consensus among the boys as to how long they were there. Some of the victims said it was an hour; others said it was closer to three. “They jammed their rifles into our backs and against our heads, then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’d kick our ankles with their boots. And they kept us with our hands on the back of our necks for so long, it was impossible to endure.” A soldier shined his light on Adonay’s back, then kicked him. “Look at the ass on this little shit!” the soldier said. “They almost broke my tailbone,” Adonay says.
The soldiers accused the boys of being gang members. “They came up to us one by one, telling us we were gang members, that we were with MS-13 or Barrio 18. They told us that they already knew who we were, and I mean, obviously they did know who we were, since they’d detained us a bunch of times before,” Emerson said, referring to the harassment the boys had experienced the weeks before.
Two of the teenagers remember hearing the soldiers receive a call from the El Zamorán police. “And then they took us there, to the police station. Who knows how long we would have stayed in that place. On our way, there was a soldier riding behind me and he hit me five times right here,” Daniel says, pointing to the back of his head. “When we drove over the speed bump as we passed by the field here, he grabbed my hair and pulled it and when he let go, he hit me in the head.” Daniel remembers arriving at El Zamorán with a headache.
In San Juan del Gozo, there is an abandoned house that matches the boys’ description of the place they say the soldiers tortured them. The site serves as the base for a marine infantry patrol that operates in the area. At the entrance is a sign indicating that, years ago, the house was used for a project sponsored by Spain’s international development agency. When El Faro visited the site on November 9, four days had passed since the boys had been detained. It was mid-morning, and two soldiers, rifles in hand, were sitting at a wooden table under a tree, scrolling through their phones. Another soldier was standing at the entrance, with several structures visible inside the facility behind him.
One of the infantrymen addressed El Faro:
—Good morning, is there something we can help you with?
—Hi, good morning. I’m a journalist, and we’re here because it’s our understanding that this is where the boys from Amando López were taken on Saturday night.
—No, we’ve been here since Friday and we haven’t seen anything. Whoever told you that needs to check their facts.
—The news reports all said they were brought to San Juan del Gozo, and from the description they gave us, and from the photos, we’re pretty sure this is the place.
—Well, you can’t trust everything you hear on the news. Why do you think this is the place?
—Because of the color of the walls. And there’s a wall missing, there’s no roof, and there’s no other place in San Juan del Gozo that looks like this. According to the testimonies we have, the boys were taken here and tortured, were forced to do pushups at night, and some of them were beaten.
—Like I said, we’ve been here since Friday and if anything happened, we would have seen it.
—Are you with the marine infantry?
—And where are you normally posted?
—We go where they tell us to. Last night we had to walk through water. Look, my boots are drying over there.
—And what division or unit sent you?
—I can’t say.
—Can we take a picture of this place?
—No, because it’s a military base. If you take a picture from the street, I am obligated to ask you why you’re taking a picture. You can’t take a picture, even from the outside.
—How can we go about getting permission to take a picture?
—You’ll have to talk to the Ministry of Defense.
That same day, on November 9, El Faro visited the El Zamorán police station to request their version of events. The officer on duty, ONI 17482, told us that they were prohibited from speaking to the press, and that to request a statement we would have to contact the municipal police department in Jiquilisco. El Faro visited the station in Jiquilisco and the officer on duty, Inspector Cecilio Cruz, told us over the phone that he was away from the precinct running errands. Cruz explained that in order to comment he had to receive authorization from the head office of the National Civil Police.
Others in the Army’s crosshairs
Cristian Leonardo, 18, and José Óliver González, 26, two friends who live in Amando López, were working together as welders in recent months. In the days leading up to the raids, they were detained by soldiers. On October 26, ten days before the arrests of the eight boys, while Cristian and Óliver were returning home at about 4 p.m., they were stopped and questioned near the entrance to the community. “They told me to put my hands up, and that they were going to search me,” Óliver remembers. “They were making fun of me, saying, ‘why is your hair like that.’ I told them that’s just how I like to wear it, and they said it wasn’t a proper haircut, that I looked like a little girl. And I just remember thinking, ‘These idiots are so mean,’ and I told them, ‘You know, girls aren’t the only ones with hair that grows,’ […] and that’s when they told me they were going to cut it. And when I saw that big guy, who I’d seen beat other kids and kick them in the feet, and who was asking Cristian why he had a tattoo, I decided it was best not to say anything back.”
Cristian was raised an orphan. His mother, who owned a small store in the community, was killed by the gangs when he was very young, and his father had migrated to the United States. He was taken in by some distant relatives, but soon decided to make it on his own. “He started getting into tattoos,” Oliver says. “He got a yin-and-yang, and then when his daughter was born, he got one with her first initial, her mother’s initial, and his... Carla, Carina and Cristian. He also had a tattoo of his daughter’s baby feet, and her mother’s other name, Amparo.”
It’s not that tattoos are unheard of in Amando López —a community where the average wage is about six dollars a day, and people live mainly off the crops they grow in the fields— but they are not very common. The soldiers, infantry marines with the Puerto del Triunfo Navy, in Jiquilisco, were suspicious of the two boys. Óliver, with his long hair; Cristian, with his tattoos.
“Then they started telling me I didn’t love my son, asking if I wanted to go to prison,” Óliver says. “I told them no, that I knew things were bad, and that’s why I was careful not to do anything wrong. Then they started making fun of my hair, saying, ‘if you’re not a little bitch, then why do you have hair like that...” The soldiers scrolled through the photos and messages on his phone. They didn’t find anything. And then, a soldier who had been in a small store nearby, playing arcades, came out and approached them.
“What’s going on here?” the soldier asked.
“They looked suspicious. Look at this one’s hair. We already told him he needs to get it cut,” said one of the soldiers who was making the boys stand with their hands behind their heads.
“This little son-of-a-bitch isn’t going to get it cut,” said the soldier who had emerged from the store.
Then he unsheathed a large knife and started hacking at Óliver’s hair, according to the victim’s account. “I just felt him pulling at it, and then he was sawing at it and then he threw my hair down on the ground in front of me.” Óliver says that he had already been thinking about getting it cut, that he had been talking about it with his partner. “But the soldiers got to it first. If I had cut my hair, I was going to keep it. But since they cut off like that, in that horrible way, I just said ‘screw it,’ and stood there staring at it and then just left it there in the dirt.” Then the soldier told him, “It doesn’t cost anything to look respectable. You need to go get yourself a proper haircut, or are you a woman?” Óliver says he thought about telling the soldier that he had a right to have long hair, but stopped himself.
Óliver spoke with El Faro while he worked installing a roof on a neighbor’s house. If the raids had not occurred, perhaps Cristian would have been working with him that day, recounting the humiliations he suffered at the hands of the soldiers. The two usually worked together. But Cristian is gone now. He fled the community because on the night of the raids the soldiers had been asked around for him. He fled because “if they catch me, who will come to get me out? I don’t have anyone; no one is going to go around asking for me like they did for the other boys,” he told Óliver before her left. Cristian asked to be paid for the week’s work and, with those 50 dollars in his pocket, he left the place where he had lived his entire life.
With Cristian gone, Óliver hired another helper. Now he works with Daniel Alexander Vigil, a tall 20-year-old who is apprenticing with Óliver as a welder. On the night of the arrests, the soldiers came to Daniel Alexander’s house, looking for his nephews who live with him. They beat on his front door so hard they broke it. “I grew up with all of them,” Daniel Alexander says, referring to his nephews. “Now we live together. There are about 16 of us in total. I didn’t know my father, and my mother died when I was one or two years old, of cancer. We grew up with some relatives, but then they sent us to a children’s home in San Vicente. Then we were moved to a children’s village for a while, until relatives came for us, and that’s how we ended up here.”
Daniel Alexander is one of the few adults in the family who can bring home an income. Ricardo, Carlitos, Roberto, Marlon, Daniel, Adonay, Edwin, and Emerson used to work in the fields, for six dollars a day, but now they are too afraid to go to work. And their families are afraid for them, too. They are afraid that the soldiers will return, that they will be taken away and tortured. The father of Emerson and Adonay, who are brothers, is 33-year-old Santos Vigil. He can no longer support his family either, because he was detained under the state of exception and accused of being a gang collaborator. By November he had spent six months in the infamous prison known as Mariona.
The fear is palpable here. Jeyli says she is afraid the soldiers will return. Emerson, Adonay and Daniel say they often have nightmares, and that they get scared when they see unfamiliar trucks, like the one the soldiers used to take them away.
“The soldiers told us to have a good night”
At around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday night, the soldiers brought the boys to the El Zamorán police station. “At least they aren’t dead,” Jeyli, José Ricardo’s sister, remembers thinking. The boys were taken into the station quickly, stumbling, tired, sore, and humiliated. They were forced to wait in the hallway, standing with their hands behind their necks — the soldiers would not let them sit down or lower their arms, and the boys were kept waiting like this for hours, with no food. “I couldn’t move my fingers,” José Daniel says. “We were so thirsty, and the only water they gave us was from the sink basin and we had to drink it with everything, with little fish in it and everything,” he said.
Some of the older boys said they overheard the soldiers and policemen arguing in the hallway. “You could tell they were being all buddy-buddy, because they were giving each other shit, but at one point the cop said, ‘Why did you even take these kids? And without any evidence? Even I could have taken these photos you gave me.’ At that point, the cops started getting angry. The soldier in charge didn’t say anything. We just saw them write something on some pieces of paper and hand them to the police.” A story published in GatoEncerrado on November 9 reported that the soldiers had lied to the police when they transferred custody of the boys, telling them they had encountered the “group of subjects” on the street and then “neutralized” them after they had tried to run away.
Sometime between 4 and 5 a.m., a policeman that the boys described as fat and bald approached the group and told them to lower their arms, that they could rest for a while. A few hours later, the officers allowed the boys to eat some bread and drink some juice that their relatives had brought them. Around 10 a.m., they were taken to the police station in Jiquilisco.
The police used a red, extended-cab pickup truck with private plates that community members said they had often seen parked at the El Zamorán police station. Locals say they have seen this same vehicle patrolling the streets of Jiquilisco several times in the past year, but unlike the truck used by soldiers on November 5, the red one is always being driven by police. On Sunday, November 6, police took the boys to the prosecutor’s office, to some holding cells at the Centro de Gobierno, and to Medicina Lega, the coroner’s office, where they underwent medical check-ups without explanation. All day long, the boys were carted from place to place and subjected to procedures they still cannot explain.
“On one of the stops, they took us to some kind of medical place and put us in a small room, and then a man just said, ‘take off your shorts and boxers,’ and I didn’t understand why. I did it, but since there were people looking in at us from the outside, I pulled them back up right away,” one of the boys recalled. “He didn’t say he was a doctor. He just said he wanted to examine us.”
As they exited Medicina Legal at about 6 p.m. on Sunday, they were all handcuffed. Jeyli, who witnessed that moment, says she was no longer so worried: “A policeman had approached me and told me discreetly that he knew the boys were going to be released, and I was so happy. You can’t imagine the relief I felt.”
The Attorney General’s Office gave the order to release the young men that night. The soldiers offered to take them home, but they all refused, choosing instead to ride in the back of a truck their families had borrowed. On their way home, it started pouring rain and the boys got completely soaked. “That’s how we all got back. We were so cold, but it was worth it,” Emerson says. The soldiers were in a vehicle behind them, escorting them to Amando López. “We came straight to the house and they followed us all the way there. When we got home, they just said, ‘Have a lovely night.’ The soldiers told us to have good night.”
*Translated by Max Granger