Recent legal reforms in El Salvador, including one to the Law Against Organized Crime, represent yet another alarming threat to human rights. These reforms, pushed through by the ruling Nuevas Ideas party in the Legislative Assembly, will allow collective trials of up to 900 people, dramatically increase the length of sentences, and jeopardize the fundamental right to due process. They will undermine the right to legal defense for tens of thousands of citizens who have been detained since President Nayib Bukele imposed a state of emergency in March 2022. And they ramp up an increasingly dangerous cycle of repression.
All human beings have the right to defend themselves in court. This cannot be done effectively in mass trials. Forcing individuals to be judged collectively will turn the presumption of innocence upside down. The criteria for such trials remain unclear, potentially leading to the trial of people based solely on shared regional origins or alleged affiliations with illegal groups. This risks wrongfully impugning innocent people who have no connection to any gangs. Moreover, the fact that the reforms allow a confession by one person to be used to implicate others is deeply troubling, taking into account reported incidents of torture, coerced testimonies, and other human rights violations under the state of emergency.
Other aspects of these far-reaching reforms raise grave concerns about the fairness and integrity of the judicial system. The decision to grant control over criminal investigations to the National Civil Police, rather than the Attorney General’s Office, brings with it a risk of undermining essential checks and balances and placing unrestrained power in the hands of the police. Also, removing the maximum 24-month time limit for criminal proceedings raises a significant concern. It opens the door to the possibility of people being detained indefinitely without due process, which could affect thousands of citizens.
These expansive reforms lay bare the unsustainability of the state of emergency and the security policies set forth by President Nayib Bukele. The widespread and indiscriminate arrests —resulting in nearly 2 percent of the entire population of the country being behind bars— have created an overwhelming burden on the criminal justice institutions, calling into question not only the Salvadoran state's willingness to protect rights but also its ability to effectively investigate crime and provide for the safety of its citizens.
The urgency to address these abuses and prevent further harm is clear. The government's reliance on security policies that prioritize repression and militarization has led to massive arrests. Now, as mass trials become institutionalized under law, it seems that El Salvador is caught in a dangerous cycle. This approach, based on the restriction of human rights standards, is unsustainable and detrimental to the well-being of Salvadoran citizens and the stability of its democracy.
This worrisome situation unfolds within a broader context of eroding rule of law and escalating reports of human rights abuses. Civil society organizations have painstakingly documented cases of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, flawed criminal proceedings and alleged deaths of over 150 citizens kept in state custody.
The international community must play a decisive role in addressing and denouncing the widespread human rights violations occurring in El Salvador. The United Nations and the Organization of American States should monitor and verify the compliance of the Salvadoran government with international human rights obligations, using the various international agencies and mandates to shed light on the current human rights situation in the country.
El Salvador's path forward must prioritize the adoption of sustainable citizen security policies that champion human rights and prioritize preventive measures. It must address the root causes of violence, reduce impunity, and foster safe environments for the population. While bringing criminals to justice is essential, upholding the principles of due process and fair trials is non-negotiable. It is only through a collective and resolute effort, both domestically and internationally, that a safer and more just El Salvador may emerge. The time for action is now, for human rights are undeniably at stake.
Carolina Jiménez Sandoval is the president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).