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Schoolteacher Alexander Eduvay Guzmán Molina, one of the first people detained under the state of exception, languished in a dark and humid cell for four days after police and guards “welcomed” him to Izalco Prison with a beating on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.
In the darkness, he saw light. Many lights. He hallucinated that his mother and wife were in the cell by his side. Then, everything turned hazy and he thought he was in a desert, until the vomiting interrupted his delirium. “We only threw up a little bit, like dry-heaving saliva,” he remembers.
Guzman’s case is far from exceptional under El Salvador’s state of exception, as the teacher himself witnessed firsthand. On the morning of March 30, 2022, Guzmán, a teacher for over two decades who runs a small taxicab business on the side, watched as state agents beat his employee and fellow inmate, Marco Tulio Castillo Reyes, who was arrested alongside Guzmán and three more of his cab drivers three days earlier on charges of “illicit association.” Castillo would die in prison two months later. The teacher, the cab driver, and some 60 other people who entered Izalco Prison during the first week of the state of exception were beaten, kicked and punched by guards and police as part of their carceral initiation, Guzmán says.
What the teacher witnessed and experienced firsthand was not an isolated case of exceptional violence, but part of a documented pattern of state abuse and torture that took place in El Salvador’s prisons at least during the first weeks of the state of exception. His testimony explains why the corpse of Castillo Reyes showed obvious signs of torture when his family went to retrieve the body from Medicina Legal, the state medical examiner’s office.
Guzman’s account adds details to the reports on abuse in custody under the state of exception published by several national and international human rights organizations, such as Socorro Jurídico Humanitario, Cristosal, and Human Rights Watch. In a report on conditions in El Salvador published in April 2023, Amnesty International denounced the “ill-treatment and torture” of people arrested under the state of exception, as well as “the deaths in state custody of at least 132 people who at the time of their deaths had not been found guilty of any crime.”
According to the report, “some people released on probation reported witnessing guards and police beating prisoners to death, when seeking to extract a ‘confession’ that they were part of a gang structure or when inflicting a supposed punishment.” Amnesty’s findings are corroborated by other evidence: In August 2022, El Faro reported on the case of a man from northern El Salvador, Francisco Huezo López, who died in prison two months after his arrest. His body, like the 35 others released from prisons during that time, showed signs of torture.
Internal police documents obtained by El Faro suggest Guzmán was arbitrarily detained without evidence. His case appears alongside two others in an internal police email, under the category: “Cases that indicate an apparent abuse of authority.”
Guzmán is the assistant director of the Altavista secondary school in Ilopango, San Salvador. On the morning of March 27, 2022, some nine hours after the Legislative Assembly declared the state of exception —an emergency measure approved after negotiations between the Bukele administration and the country’s gangs collapsed, resulting in a mass killing spree perpetrated in retribution by the Mara Salvatrucha-13— he was arrested on charges of “illicit associations.”
After three days locked up in the Ilopango Jail, Guzmán was transferred to Izalco Prison, where police and guards beat and left him in a cell on the verge of death. In December of last year, after interviewing 1,100 people affected by the state of exception, Human Rights Watch and Cristosal reported that state security forces had committed rights violations including enforced disappearances, torture, deaths in custody, and hundreds of arbitrary detentions.
Guzman’s mistreatment began at four in the morning on March 30, 2022, when he and fifty other detainees were transferred from the jail in Ilopango. “They handcuffed us and threw us into some tall trucks the police had,” he says. “We couldn’t even move, because we were all handcuffed, but they were pushing and shoving at us anyways. They took us, crammed in on top of each other like that, with our hands behind our backs, handcuffs cinched down too tight, from Ilopango to Izalco. The trip was excruciating. I peed in my boxers... I remember, my legs and my arms, they couldn’t bear it. Some people cried, others were shouting: “I can’t take it anymore! Officer, please!’ But the agents just responded with threats, telling us to shut up or they’d kick us or beat us with their batons. And they did: They kicked us and clubbed us, with insults and nasty words: ‘You bastard! You son of a bitch, you delinquent! Look at you: you’ve had enough of the rent you’re collecting, you piece of shit.’ And then the real torture began.”
At mid-morning, the police truck parked outside Izalco Prison. The detainees, wearing only their boxer shorts, were taken down from the truck and held in the open sun for two hours. Then they were put through the X-ray scanner. “They forced us to do push-ups, completely naked. My body couldn’t take it anymore, my legs were too weak. My whole body was shaking. 20 push-ups! And they started to count, telling us it was to see if we were hiding anything in our anuses, that the push-ups would force whatever we had out. It was so horrible! Just terrible! Something I never imagined I would experience.” And it only got worse from there.
After the push-ups, police and guards formed two parallel lines leading to the entrance of the cellblock. With the detainees’ bodies still shaking from the exercise and the two hours in the baking sun, they were forced to run in a squat position between the rows of uniformed agents wearing ski-masks.
“We started to go through the middle of those two lines, running with our heads down, and the beatings by the guards and police began: kicking us, clubbing us, punching us, everywhere on our bodies. The batons thrashing at us from every direction, fush, fush, fush, fush, the blows, pum, pum, pum!... I had to pass through the middle of all that, all of us did, all of us who were in line, running. Some got hit more than others. One agent kicked me in my right leg, my thigh, and I fell over. And then they just started wailing on me.” The beatings only ended when the police and guards got tired of kicking, punching, and swinging their batons, he says.
The teacher and the cab driver were in agony, languishing in a cell for four days. Guzmán says he did not eat anything during that entire time, and that his employee did not eat either. They were delirious. They vomited. They had bruises and pain all over their bodies. They had fevers and chills. Not a single guard responded to their cries for help, as they lay dying in their cell. “I remember Marco Tulio saying to me: ‘Profe, I couldn’t let you be the only one to suffer. All of a sudden, we were in that cell, suffering for days from the beatings they gave us. We were in agony for four days, with terrible fevers, with unbearable chills. Then at some point, a few of the young men in there with us took what little dirty water was left at the bottom of an old washbasin in the cell, and used their hands, as best they could, to scoop the water and rub it on those of us who were delirious with fever, putting it on our foreheads, on our bodies.”
Guzmán recovered from the beating, and would spend the next six months experiencing first-hand the grave human rights violations he says are the daily fare in El Salvador’s prisons: guards who beat prisoners with batons and spray mace inside cells, overcrowding, gang-controlled cellblocks, corruption in the handling of the packages sent by relatives to detained loved ones, and hunger as a policy of torture by the state.
“This is how they would bring food to the cell: It was just a few small tortillas spread with a little bean paste. And they would just throw the tortillas on the ground, through the bars, and we would fall on the food like dogs, worse than street animals. And the muchachos [gang members], the guys with numbers and letters [members of Barrio 18 and MS-13], who had control inside the cell, they would say: ‘you, go get your tortilla; you, go get your tortilla’… [some of us] would manage to grab a tortilla with beans, others, I saw how they licked the floor... And the guards were like thugs, walking around in the corridors, standing outside the cell with their clubs, wearing their masks, with their guns, with their gas canisters, ready to spray gas. No! For God’s sake, don’t spray gas in the cell! Por Dios! Por Dios! Por Dios! I still... I still can’t get over the emotional and physical damage, not to mention the economic damage... They ruined my life! Uf... I still can’t get out of bed; I still can’t get over it.”
Guzmán was released on parole on September 22 of last year, but his friend and employee, the cab driver Marco Tulio Castillo Reyes, never made it home. He died in prison on May 28, 2022. When his family received his body from the medical examiner’s office, they documented lacerations on his right shoulder, a large wound with jagged edges, and bruises all over his back. El Faro contacted one of Castillo Reyes’ relatives, but the man said the family did not want to talk about the case. “We don’t want to stir things up. We’re going to leave this be, and let God handle it,” he responded to an interview request sent via an instant messaging app.
One year ago, on June 4, 2022, after the funeral of Castillo Reyes, the Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported on a complaint filed by the cab driver’s family, which claimed that prior to his death, authorities had refused to allow him to receive a delivery of medicine that he needed to take every day to treat his liver cirrhosis, a condition he had suffered since 2021. In addition, the family stated that Castillo Reyes’ corpse had exhibited obvious signs of torture when they retrieved the body from the medical examiners. “They abused him in prison like you couldn’t imagine. I have photos that we took at Medicina Legal, where you can see how badly beat up he was, how his back was all bruised,” his sister told reporters.
The beating suffered by Guzmán and the assault that left the taxi driver Castillo Reyes on the verge of death suggest a practice of systematic torture inside El Salvador’s prisons. El Faro documented a similar case in San Salvador’s La Esperanza Prison, commonly known as Mariona. “When we got there, the guards were lined up on two sides, side by side, and they had us all crouched down,” said Ramón, a young man who was detained by soldiers despite having no tattoos, no criminal record, and no record of being a gang member. “They told us that anyone who raised his head would get hit. I stayed crouching down, but they hit me in my ribs with their batons, and kicked me with their boots. Then, when we finally got to the end, after maybe two blocks of running crouched down, they told us: ‘take off your clothes,’ and then left us there with nothing. We’d been wearing clothes that our families had brought to the police station, but once we got there [to the prison], they gave us shorts that were all dirty and disgusting, full of hair,” he said.
El Faro requested comment from the Bureau of Prisons but never received a response. Director and Vice Minister of Security Osiris Luna Meza declined to comment on recent allegations of torture in the prisons he oversees.
Salvadoran authorities posit that the majority of in-custody deaths since the beginning of the state of exception have resulted from health problems afflicting detainees prior to their arrest, but the leader of the Nuevas Ideas ruling-party bloc in the Legislative Assembly, Christian Guevara, contradicted this claim in March, asserting that the majority of deaths in prison were actually murders perpetrated by inmates — a claim made in support of his argument that the tens of thousands of people arrested under the state of exception are not innocent “kindergarteners,” but dangerous terrorists.
The alleged gang collaborator
Guzmán began investing in taxicabs in 2010. “I wanted to start a business. Even though I was already a professional, I didn’t want to be waiting for my salary every month. I had three young daughters to feed, and so that’s why I decided to start leasing vehicles.” Guzmán started with one cab that he would drive in his spare time after teaching. Then, thanks to his stable employment, he took out two loans to purchase another 11 vehicles in the next ten years.
Guzmán rented the cabs and managed a taxi stand on the main street of Ilopango’s Llano Verde neighborhood. Every weekend, he would drive down to the taxi stand to collect his rental fees. The morning of March 27, 2022 was no exception. But at 10:30 a.m., as the teacher and the other cab drivers were parked at the stand in Llano Verde, three police patrol vehicles and a dozen agents from Soyopango’s Tactical Operations Unit surrounded the stand and detained Guzmán along with four of his employees: Mario Hernández, Héctor Obdulio, José Valentín Rodríguez, and Marco Tulio Castillo Reyes, the cab driver who would die in prison.
The official cause provided for the arrest of Guzmán and the other cab drivers alleges that they were helping gang members escape from police. Under the state of exception, any police officer or soldier can arrest anyone they consider suspicious. Confidential prosecutorial case files obtained by El Faro demonstrate a pattern of false or vague accusations used as grounds for imprisonment, with arrest criteria such as “appearing nervous” or simply having a criminal record, even in cases where the person arrested was acquitted or had already completed their sentence. The police operation at the taxi stand resulted in five arrests, five seized vehicles, and the confiscation of $300 in cab rental fees collected by Guzmán. The teacher was taken to jail, the cars were impounded, and the $300 disappeared. According to complains made by the family on social media, the confiscated money was never submitted to the court as evidence.
One year after his arrest, Guzmán says the official reason provided for his imprisonment is illogical. “The officers asked who was responsible for the cab stand. ‘Good morning, I am, my name is Alexander Guzmán,” he remembers telling them. “‘Oh yeah, the teacher,’ they said, because they knew who I was. The police station is at the entrance to San Bartolo, which is less than two blocks from where I had my business. They knew exactly who I was. I’d been parking there for 10 or 12 years.” The police said they had received a call alerting them of “a group with suspicious origins” involved in transporting “people with suspicious origins.” “Please,” the teacher told them, “all we do here is provide a service to customers coming out of Súper Selectos, to the residents of the neighborhood! We’re not detectives who know everything about everyone we give rides to.”
The cab stand is located in an area controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha-13. But far from being collaborators, Guzmán says that he and the other cab drivers were victims of the gangs: every week, they had to pay $150 in extortion fees. “We had to pay for permission to work.”
On April 27, El Faro requested an interview with police officials through the press office of the National Civil Police (PNC) but never received a response. A separate request for comment was also sent to the Ministry of Security and Justice, which likewise neglected to respond. El Faro could not obtain any information from court documents because the file is confidential, as are thousands of other dossiers pertaining to cases prosecuted under the state of exception. Thanks, however, to the thousands of official documents obtained by the hacking collective known as Guacamaya and released by the transparency organization DDoSecrets, El Faro was able to confirm that there is no evidence linking Guzmán to any gang, according to an internal investigation conducted by the police in May of last year.
The PNC’s Internal Control Unit, which conducts audits of police procedures, opened the investigation into the handling of Guzmán’s case, including a review of documentation and interviews with police chiefs in Soyapango, after family members and co-workers denounced his “unjust” arrest on social media and in the pages of La Prensa Gráfica.
The head of the Department of Specialized Operational Areas (DAEO) in Soyopango asserted that Guzmán was arrested “for having knowledge” that vehicles leased as Uber taxis and registered in his name “are used by gang members to move from one place to another when they have committed crimes or are about to commit them.” This “knowledge” is not corroborated by any document, and the Internal Control Unit has stated that “it is not known whether Mr. Guzmán has been identified for involvement in criminal structures, but investigations indicate that the cabs in question have been used for said criminal activity.”
Officials in charge of the internal investigation requested a report from the Soyopango division of the Police Intelligence Unit, but that office did not have any information linking Guzmán to gangs. “[The unit] does not possess any information incriminating Mr. Guzmán Molina as a member of criminal structures or linking him to them,” the report states. The only information on Guzmán the intelligence unit found was a police record regarding a case of reckless driving.
The Internal Control Unit reviewed the arrest report, as well as the interviews conducted by investigators with the four officers involved in Guzman’s arrest. In one of these interviews, an officer states that police received the order to carry out the arrests from the head of the Tactical Operations Unit in Soyapango.
Guzmán has no criminal record linking him to gang-related crimes; there are no police surveillance reports or photographs connecting him to gangs; and investigators have not indicated the names of the gang members who allegedly used his vehicles to commit or flee the scene of crimes, according to the preliminary investigation. The only reason for his arrest stipulated in police documents is that there was a “presumption of an alleged crime” by a deputy inspector.
These details are included in a Word document entitled, “Preliminary inspection diligence DP0131,” attached to an email sent on May 7, 2022 from Metropolitan Control to the Police Analysis Control Unit. Also attached to the same email were eight other Word documents pertaining to alleged arbitrary detentions under the state of exception, along with a Power Point presentation summarizing each case.
In six of these documented cases, investigators rule out police malpractice, but three other cases are included in a section titled, “Cases that suggest there was abuse of authority.” One of these is Guzman’s.
The preliminary report from the Internal Control Unit states that Guzmán was captured due to a “presumption,” and recommends the following to the head of the Soyapango tactical unit: “Issue instructions to police personnel under command that, when carrying out detention procedures under the provisions of Decree 333 of the State of Exception and its extension, they comply with the requirements of the criminal offense in question.” The internal investigation is not explicit in stating whether there was a failure to comply in Guzman’s case, nor does it make any reference to the 300 dollars seized during the police operation.
Lights, camera… repetition
A common public relations practice repeated by police when they arrest individuals with no tattoos, no criminal records, and no evidence of gang membership, according to testimonies collected by El Faro, is to place those individuals with groups of tattooed gang members, photograph the group, and then use these photographs to convince the public that they are part of the same group.
Guzmán, for example, says that after his arrest he was taken to the Ilopango Jail, and then to an outdoor basketball court, where officers made him stand in the hot sun in a group of fifty or so other strangers. He was barefoot and shirtless, dressed only in boxer shorts. “There were people with tattoos, covered in numbers and letters, and they had them stand in front to make people think they had a whole group of gang members. And everyone else, civilians like myself, they put behind the formation. It was practically its own kind of torture, standing half-naked in the sun on a basketball court at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
A similar incident took place last year in the San Marcos police district, south of San Salvador. According to Ramón, the young man interviewed by El Faro who spent nearly a year in prison but was granted conditional release after authorities determined he had no ties to gangs, at seven o’clock on the night of April 13, 2022, after his arrest under the state of exception, police took him to be photographed alongside a group of gang members he had never seen in his life. “There were a lot of tattooed guys. They put them out in front and they put us, who had no tattoos or anything, in the back. They took pictures of us. There were a bunch of us, maybe 30 in total,” he said.
An apparent script in the government’s war on gangs, the practice was again repeated in the city of Santa Ana on April 5, 2022. On that day, officers arrested bricklayer José Alfredo Grande Martínez, along with nine other people, accusing him of being a gang collaborator. Police claimed the bricklayer had been hiding gang members in his house, located in the Emanuel neighborhood of Santa Ana, and that at the time of his arrest he was on the street in the company of gang members. Testimony from family members and an internal police investigation determined that this accusation was false.
The bricklayer was photographed and presented on official police social media accounts as a member of a criminal structure. The family, however, says that among the photographed detainees were individuals who no one knew, and who did not live in the community. “They put him with people we didn’t recognize. I get scared every time my dad goes to the market for groceries, because he’s in one of the photos they sent out: alias El Gordo, they call him,” one family member said in an interview last February.
After the photo op, Guzmán and the other detainees were taken back to the overcrowded jail. “Sleeping on the floor is the worst, sleeping all intertwined like that, all piled together, with people on top of you. We would take turns, standing up for a while, sitting down for a while. Someone would cradle me, then I’d cradle him. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” said the teacher, who after three days in the Ilopango holding cells was transferred to Izalco Prison, where he suffered the beating that left him on the verge of death and then was left in a cell for four days.
On March 27, 2022, minutes before his arrest, Guzmán says he noticed one of his colleagues, another cab owner, behaving strangely. The man’s four cabs were parked at the stand, but a few minutes before the police raid, they all drove across the street and parked at the Súper Selectos grocery store.
“Suddenly, I saw this person pull out and drive over to the parking lot. I thought he was acting pretty suspicious, because he kept watching the stand and then getting back in his car. The internal police investigation states that the information and order to carry out the arrest came from a deputy police inspector, but Guzmán suspects that another cab owner denounced him to the government under the state of exception, to eliminate the competition.
On April 11, 2022, Guzmán and 69 other individuals were brought en masse before the court to face charges of illicit association. Prosecutors accused the teacher of belonging to a criminal group composed largely of people he did not know, who lived in places he did not frequent, like the neighborhood of Las Margaritas in Soyopango, which has been under the control of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 for decades. At the end of the virtual hearing, Guzmán told the judge that he suffered from diabetes and hypertension. He said nothing about the beating he received in Izalco Prison. The judge responded that he was sorry for his ailments, but that the ruling upholding his detention applied to everyone.
Seven days later, due to a lack of medication, the after-effects of the beating, and the diabetes and hypertension, Guzmán became seriously ill and lost consciousness in his cell. This was on April 18, 2022. When he came to, he was in the clinic at Izalco Prison. Four days later, he was transferred to Quezaltepeque Prison.
Guzmán says that the conditions and treatment were slightly better in Quezaltepeque. Inmates received two meals a day, a used shirt and pair of pants, and were even allowed the luxury of praying. The two meals were macaroni and rice. The next day, macaroni and rice. And so on, every day. When the teacher entered the prison system, he weighed 220 pounds. By the time he left, he was down to 120. “I was a corpse,” he says.
On Teacher’s Day in 2022 (June 22 in El Salvador), Guzmán was in a cell in Quezaltepeque Prison, malnourished and held incommunicado, but his ninth-grade students wrote him a message on social media anyway: “Thank you so much for being the best teacher in the school, for being an educator, a friend, for always being helpful and supportive. Unfortunately, you can’t be here to celebrate this day with us, but in that hell where you’ being held without cause, know that we have so much affection for you.”
After five months in Quezaltepeque, on September 8, 2022, Guzmán was transferred to El Penalón in Santa Ana, where he was finally able to see the sky from the prison yard, and remembers, crying, how he ate fruit and a chicken leg. On September 22, a judge granted Guzmán conditional release. He returned to his home and his work at the Altavista school, where he resumed his position as assistant director.
On September 22, the teacher was released on parole, and his life seemed to return to normal, but then, on March 22, 2023, the Attorney General’s Office issued a new warrant for his arrest. Police arrived at the Altavista school, handcuffed Guzmán, and took him back to the Ilopango Jail for five days. This time, they charged him with “illegal restriction on freedom of movement,” claiming that a woman had accused him of having ties to a gang, and of threatening to kill her unless she left his taxi service location.
The account of the alleged victim has major inconsistencies. For example, the complaint states that in August 2022 Guzmán demanded an extorsion payment of $300 to not make an attempt on her life. But on that date, the teacher was imprisoned in Quezaltepeque. Last month, Guzmán had a hearing before the Ilopango Peace Court, and was once again granted conditional release: Now, he must check in with authorities every 15 days, until a second hearing is held in three months.
*Translated by Max Granger