El Salvador / Politics

US Tries Not to Offend Bukele in Annual Human Rights Report

Brendan Smialowski
Brendan Smialowski

Wednesday, May 22, 2024
José Luis Sanz

Leer en español

Thousands of illegal arrests, surveillance of journalists and dissidents, warrantless searches, political prisoners, mass trials held online, in which defendants cannot speak to their lawyers, inmates beaten to death by guards, pregnant prisoners suffering miscarriages due to a lack of medical care, babies dying in prison. The State Department’s latest annual Human Rights Report, released on April 22, paints a brutal picture of El Salvador’s justice system and details grave rights violations and abuses committed by the government in 2023. It is perhaps the most scathing compilation of the darker aspects of President Nayib Bukele’s anti-crime policy published by a foreign government to date. And yet, the 2024 report still attempts to wash the face of the Salvadoran government enough to avoid a diplomatic confrontation.

One Biden administration official who spoke to El Faro portrayed the 44-page report as a balancing act in which “everyone can find what they want to read.” Criticism of the state of emergency, which has restricted basic rights in El Salvador for more than two years, is evident and damning: “In the majority of hearings, judges ordered defendants to remain in detention even when the Attorney General’s Office failed to provide sufficient evidence demonstrating defendants were affiliated with a gang,” the document reads. But this blunt description of a country where citizens are guilty until proven innocent starkly contrasts with other sections of the report, such as those dedicated to the fight against corruption, which reveal the desire of the United States to cushion the blow for Bukele, in keeping with a strategy of détente promoted since the arrival of Ambassador William Duncan in San Salvador in early 2023.

The report’s executive summary, for example, opens with the fact that the reduction in gang violence in recent years has guaranteed the right to life for millions of Salvadorans, and closes with the questionable claim that “the government [of El Salvador] took credible steps to identify and punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses,” in clear contradiction to page six of the same document, where the State Department reports that “impunity was a problem in the General Directorate of Penal Centers,” as well as in the Police and Army.

“The government [of El Salvador] did not always observe the requirements of the law and constitution,” reads the section on arbitrary detentions, which now total more than 78,000. Mass arrests have been key to dismantling the criminal power structures of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs over the course of the past two years, but those structures has now been replaced by a new regime of fear of police abuses. Echoing the denunciations of international organizations like Human Rights Watch, the United States notes that “as of November [2023], no case from the state of exception had gone to trial.”

Noah Bullock, director of the human rights organization Cristosal, which is cited as a source several times in the document, says that the report “clearly describes a model of security and a political regime built on the basis of massive and systematic human rights violations in El Salvador.” Bullock says that, “despite the permanent campaign of the government to delegitimize and criminalize those who speak out, the truth of tens of thousands of victims prevails.”

Andrés was born in Jorge Mazzini Hospital in Sonsonate, El Salvador on December 25, 2022. Three days later, he was sent to the Izalco prison farm where his mother was detained. When he was released in May 2023, the boy was suffering from scabies, a common skin disease in Salvadoran prisons. He is still experiencing complications from the infection. Photo Carlos Barrera
Andrés was born in Jorge Mazzini Hospital in Sonsonate, El Salvador on December 25, 2022. Three days later, he was sent to the Izalco prison farm where his mother was detained. When he was released in May 2023, the boy was suffering from scabies, a common skin disease in Salvadoran prisons. He is still experiencing complications from the infection. Photo Carlos Barrera

The report devotes three pages to the inhumane conditions faced by prisoners in El Salvador and describes acts of torture committed by officials, which the Salvadoran authorities have refused to investigate. “A man released from Izalco prison said guards beat one of his cellmates to death with batons and the butts of their rifles. He also said guards activated electric stun guns against the prison’s wet floors to deliver electric shocks to all the prisoners in a cell,” the document reads, citing newspaper reports. It also mentions that “many pregnant women miscarried due to a lack of medical care” in prison, and cites the cases, published by the newspaper El Diario de Hoy and documented by the Salvadoran NGO Socorro Jurídico Humanitario, of a one-year-old girl and a six-month-old baby who were imprisoned with their mothers and died due to “limited medical care.”

“Human rights organizations noted that the Attorney General’s Office had not opened any complaints into the allegations of torture, abuse, or mistreatment by prison guards,” the report reads.

What corruption?

Leonor Arteaga, director of the Impunity and Grave Human Rights Violations program at the Washington, D.C.-based Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), appreciates the “strong, forceful” nature of the State Department’s annual report, but emphasizes its ambiguities. “I don’t think using the phrase ‘credible steps’ in the executive summary is an oversight, but rather an attempt to tone down the report,” she says.

The most notable effort to sympathize with the Bukele administration can be found in the sections of the report focused on corruption. The State Department describes the “war against corruption” announced by the president in June of last year in glowing terms, and even includes the official number, provided by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, of corruption investigations supposedly opened by government prosecutors (285). It also insists on the idea —contested by multiple transparency organizations— that the fight against corruption in El Salvador is apolitical and includes officials of the ruling party. “Although most officials investigated for or charged with corruption were from the ARENA party, FMLN, or minor opposition parties, several sitting members of the Nuevas Ideas party also faced corruption investigations,” the report reads, citing the arrests of Nuevas Ideas mayors and a ruling party congressman and his deputy.

The omissions, however, are scandalous. The report refers, for example, to the 14-year prison sentence given to former President Mauricio Funes for negotiating with gangs in 2012, but does not include a word about the sanctions that the Treasury and the State Departments themselves have imposed on Bukele’s Bureau of Prisons Director, Osiris Luna, and on the Director of the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, Carlos Marroquin, for spearheading similar negotiations with the gangs on Bukele’s behalf. The FBI maintains an open investigation against both officials, and in its indictment of Mara Salvatrucha-13 leader Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” the Justice Department alleges that Marroquín not only helped the gang member illegally escape from prison in El Salvador, but provided him with a firearm during his escape. Bukele’s government denies the allegations.

In the case of Osiris Luna, the report also ignores evidence, gathered by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office before Bukele ordered the removal of the Attorney General in May 2021, that the Bureau of Prisons Director diverted 42,909 sacks of food from a government emergency relief program and sold them to a private entity in 2020. The stolen food had been intended for citizens affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and was valued at $1.6 million.

Police officers load two detainees into a patrol car in front of the Attorney General’s Office in San Salvador. The alleged gang members were arrested under the state of exception and came to the Attorney General’s Office to seek legal representation from a public defender. Photo Víctor Peña
Police officers load two detainees into a patrol car in front of the Attorney General’s Office in San Salvador. The alleged gang members were arrested under the state of exception and came to the Attorney General’s Office to seek legal representation from a public defender. Photo Víctor Peña

In late 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department also sanctioned Bukele’s Chief of Cabinet, Carolina Recinos, identifying her as “the head of a multiple-ministry, multi-million-dollar corruption scheme.” Recinos, like Luna and Marroquín, retains her position at the highest levels of the Bukele government, which has also declared virtually all public expenditures to be off the books. In total, as many as seven members or former members of the president’s cabinet have been sanctioned by the State Department without any investigation ever opened against them in El Salvador. Yet none of these cases, nor the extreme opacity of the Bukele administration, appear in the State Department’s Human Rights Report.

Questioned about these inconsistencies, the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador responded with a rote phrase: “We applaud the efforts of the government of El Salvador to address corruption at all levels and continue to advocate for impartial and transparent investigations into alleged acts of corruption, regardless of political affiliation.” Long gone is the day in January 2021 when Juan González, who until a few months ago was Biden’s top advisor on the White House National Security Council, claimed that no president who refused to fight corruption would be an ally of the U.S. government.

The following year, González himself raised the alarm about Bukele “shutting down access to public information [and] refusing to take action on corruption,” citing this, in addition to his coup against the judiciary in May 2021, as reasons for not inviting El Salvador to the first Summit for Democracy, a multilateral space created months earlier by the Biden administration. Bukele remains uninvited to the summits.

Do no harm

The reason the State Department can be so critical of the state of exception while congratulating the government of El Salvador on the issue of corruption can be found in the polls. Bukele’s security policy has overwhelming support among Salvadorans and, despite the fact that 73.6 percent of the population oppose warrantless arrests, 80.7 percent say they have benefited from the state of exception, and 69.1 percent believe it should continue, according to the most recent study by the Central American University (UCA). The state of exception seems shielded from criticism, and the denunciations of abuses or prison conditions have not only failed to erode Bukele’s popularity, but have reinforced his image among the populace as an uncompromising leader in the fight against crime.

Corruption, on the other hand, is an issue with enormous capacity for social mobilization, as evidenced by Bukele’s own political career, which was built in large part on the promise of fighting it, and on lambasting the traditional political parties for their corrupt past.

To justify this strategic shift in its relationship with El Salvador, Biden administration officials have privately repeated in recent months that the United States “decided to stop investing political capital in things that are not going to happen” — a reference both to the failure of previous attempts to halt the Salvadoran government’s authoritarian drift and to the minimal effect that U.S. sanctions appear to have had on the Bukele administration. But in reality, Washington seems to have applied the opposite logic in its Human Rights Report: allowing criticism of Bukele on issues where it knows it cannot hurt him, and softening its tone in areas where it believes criticism might offend him.

On November 5, the United States will hold a presidential election, and polls predict a very close race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The White House’s top objective with respect to El Salvador is to not stir up a hornet’s nest named Bukele, who has an enormous reach on social media, including a considerable base of followers in the US —in February, Bukele won 97.8 percent of the more than 300,000 votes cast by the Salvadoran diaspora— and who is clearly aligned with the most extreme wing of the Republican Party. In late February, the Salvadoran president was welcomed as a guest speaker at CPAC, the main radical right-wing political conference in the United States, essentially an eccentric three-day pro-Trump rally. In recent years, Bukele has accused the current U.S. government of seeking not allies, but “subjugation.”

Three weeks after the report’s publication, the Biden administration, according to one official, feels a certain sense of satisfaction for having managed to “put some things in writing” without paying the price of a public response from Bukele. In contrast to the presidents of Mexico and Colombia, who criticized the Human Rights Report as foreign interference, or the government of Honduras, whose Foreign Minister Enrique Reina described the report as “partial and unilateral,” El Salvador, which had access to a draft of the report before its publication, has stayed silent.

Few in Washington are smiling about the limited influence that cordiality and public silence has afforded them with the Bukele government. When questioned about the results of the new strategy, U.S. officials tended to highlight the issue of migration as a victory: as of the end of 2023, the Salvadoran government now requires transit visas and the payment of a $1,130 fee from citizens of India who want to make a stopover in El Salvador, following an uptick in recent years of undocumented Indian migrants arriving at the US border in southern states such as Texas. The new transit fee is also required for travelers from 56 other countries, mostly in Africa.

From left to right: Eduardo López, president of Google Cloud for Latin America, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, and U.S. Ambassador William Duncan during the inauguration of the Google office in San Salvador on April 15, 2024. Photo Marvin Recinos/AFP
From left to right: Eduardo López, president of Google Cloud for Latin America, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, and U.S. Ambassador William Duncan during the inauguration of the Google office in San Salvador on April 15, 2024. Photo Marvin Recinos/AFP

Sources close to the Embassy say that the United States has also obtained a vague and private commitment from the Salvadoran government to soon end the state of exception, but without knowing for certain if and when the promise will be fulfilled, or what the real impact of such a decision might be, given that a series of subsequent legal reforms fast-tracked over the course of the past two years guarantee that the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, the Police, and the Army will continue to enjoy extraordinary powers. The State Department’s Human Rights Report notes that reforms to El Salvador’s criminal code pushed through by Nuevas Ideas in 2022 gave the attorney general power to conduct “a wide range of undercover digital monitoring activities without a warrant, with no restrictions on scope or duration.” In Bullock’s view, “it is already undeniable that the state of exception has become a system of permanent repression in El Salvador, and that the violation of human rights is a state policy.”

Meanwhile, Bukele continues to be showered with affection by the party of Donald Trump. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, under Republican control, plans to hold a hearing in the coming weeks on the issue of gangs. The Committee is expected to applaud El Salvador’s security policy and criticize the Biden administration for not openly supporting it.

Ana María Méndez, Director for Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticizes the State Department’s strategy and its report from another angle: “It notes that gang violence has been reduced in El Salvador, but it reports deaths in prison that do not appear in the official homicide statistics,” she says. “The Bukele government has hidden or ignored these deaths, which could be considered extrajudicial executions because they happened in custody, which implies direct state responsibility, something the report does not mention either.” Méndez also questions why no high-ranking officials in Washington or at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador have spoken publicly, especially in their appearances with Bukele or with members of his cabinet, about the human rights violations that their own report documents. “It’s yet another contradiction of the Biden administration,” she says.

Leonor Arteaga of the DPLF wants this report to “redefine the U.S. relationship with El Salvador” and says that the criticisms it contains should “be the basis for [U.S.] diplomacy moving forward,” but thinks that this is unlikely. In recent years, human rights organizations, including DPLF, as well as migrant rights activists, have argued that Biden’s Root Causes Strategy, which was supposed to put anti-corruption and human rights at the center of the migration debate in Central America, increasingly resembles the transactional relationship that Donald Trump maintained with the region. “We fear that Biden and some of his immigration policy advisers are lurching right toward an inhumane policy that former President Trump had embraced,” Oscar Chacón, the executive director of Alianza Américas, said last February in response to one of Biden’s announcements of stricter immigration policies.

Questioned in late April by El Faro about these criticisms of Washington’s prioritization of its migration agenda over its human rights agenda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Jacobstein simply stated that “migration management is certainly a priority, but so are governance and human rights.” As for the serious abuses outlined in his own report, Jacobstein sidestepped controversy: “The human rights report does not contain analysis or make judgments; it does not pronounce or take positions on domestic issues or international law,” he said.

Juan Pappier, Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, is also critical of the State Department’s ambivalence: “The report is far from reflecting the grave human rights situation in El Salvador today,” he says. “It appears to present the facts as if they were isolated cases, when in reality we are dealing with a government that controls virtually the entire state apparatus and commits widespread human rights violations with total impunity.” In January, HRW’s 2024 report had already noted that Salvadoran authorities “have committed widespread human rights violations, including mass arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment in detention, and due process violations.”

An article 4B country

In the last month, two other international reports have detailed the grave situation of systematic abuse and serious human rights violations in El Salvador. Amnesty International’s annual report, released on April 24, states that the state of exception “has resulted in widespread human rights violations, erosion of the rule of law, and criminalization of dissenting voices.” It also provides details on the prison releases made by the government, about which very little information is available: “Although the authorities reported the release of more than 7,000 detainees, 85% of these individuals were not acquitted of the ‘illegal association’ charges and continued to face legal proceedings that remained pending.”

The more technical and formal annual report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) states: “The IACHR has received multiple complaints of human rights violations in the framework of citizen security operations and in the administration of justice to persons allegedly linked to gangs. According to available data, there are illegal and arbitrary detentions and restrictions to judicial protection, due process and judicial guarantees.”

Funeral home employees carry a coffin with the remains of Rodrigo Vásquez, 44, who was detained on May 9, 2022 under El Salvador’s state of exception and died in Izalco prison. According to El Salvador’s medical examiner’s office, Vásquez died of pneumonia. Photo Carlos Barrera
Funeral home employees carry a coffin with the remains of Rodrigo Vásquez, 44, who was detained on May 9, 2022 under El Salvador’s state of exception and died in Izalco prison. According to El Salvador’s medical examiner’s office, Vásquez died of pneumonia. Photo Carlos Barrera

“Reports from the U.S. State Department, the IACHR and our own global report highlight the grave human rights crisis in El Salvador,” Ana Piquer, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, told El Faro English. “This crisis is the result of a purely repressive approach to citizen security, whose main expression has been the continued extension of the state of exception for two years, without adequate debate in the Legislative Assembly or transparency with regards to accountability of authorities.”

The most striking aspect of the IACHR report, published on April 25, is what it does not include, as a result of the Commission’s decision not to assign El Salvador a chapter IV. B designation, which is reserved for countries with the most serious systematic human rights violations in the Americas, and traditionally only for the extreme cases of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In recent months, there has been some speculation about the possibility of El Salvador’s inclusion, especially after Guatemala was assigned IV. B status in 2023.

The former president of the IACHR, Julissa Mantilla, who also served as country rapporteur for El Salvador until the end of 2023, says that the IACHR discussed and even voted on whether to incorporate El Salvador into section IV. B. “El Salvador should be in IV. B, given the general situation we know about and describe in the report, which in my view shows no signs of improving with the reelection of Bukele,” she said. “But that decision is not made by the country rapporteur, which at that time was me, nor by the president, but by general discussion involving all of the commissioners.” Mantilla explains that Guatemala’s inclusion was discussed for three or four years until it finally entered by majority vote, though not unanimously. “In this year’s discussion, there was talk about whether El Salvador should or should not be included,” she says. “For me, there is no discussion; it should be included, and I voted in favor of that. But we didn’t have a majority.”

Mantilla, a former judge, is certain that the Commission will reconvene at the end of the year, sometime between October and December, to discuss the case of El Salvador and its possible inclusion in the IV. B section. “It will depend a lot on what pressures are exerted by the current country rapporteur, [the Colombian commissioner Carlos] Bernal, who last year voted against it.”

Despite rejecting El Salvador’s entry into IV. B, the IACHR did agree to prepare a specific report on the impact of El Salvador’s ongoing state of exception on human rights, which is scheduled to be published before the end of May. “When I left, the report was almost finished,” says Mantilla. “It’s quite forceful.”

*Additional reporting by Gabriel Labrador. Translated by Max Granger.

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