El Salvador / Violence

In El Salvador, Fear and Silence Shroud the Dead

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Efren Lemus

Leer en español

“We searched carefully to gather these papers to prove that Francisco was innocent, but they wouldn't let him leave. They didn't even tell us he was sick, and when they returned him to us, he was already dead. They’re the only ones who know why they did not let him out, so we are not interested in talking about the case.”

The man speaking was Daniel, in his 60s, with neat, gray hair. Daniel is the uncle of Francisco, a 30-year-old former private-sector employee and the father of a little girl. Francisco was arrested in January 2023, in the tenth month of the state of exception, with a group of other young people a few blocks from his home in a town in central El Salvador, alongside a busy logjam of motorcycles, buses, cars, and street vendors selling clothes, shoes, vegetables, and trinkets. Over a year later, he returned home in a coffin.

“He was my nephew, but I can't give you any information because that's what his mother has decided. I have to respect what my sister has decided. She has decided to leave this death alone because she is afraid. And I understand why, because she works, she rides the bus and they can follow her, they can do something to her, accuse her of something,” Daniel said from the threshold of his metal door.

I put away my notebook and pencil. I told Daniel that I understood his fear and that I would no longer ask for details about Francisco’s case, but that I was interested in clues to answer this question: Who would be interested in following a worker to her workplace for talking about her son’s death?

“The government. Now, things are like they were in the 1980s,” he replied.

* * *

In March 2022, the breakdown of negotiations between President Nayib Bukele’s government and the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang triggered the murder of 87 Salvadorans in just three days. In response to the century’s most violent weekend, the president asked the Legislative Assembly to approve a state of emergency for one month. The following month, it asked for an extension and then another one the next month. 25 months have gone by this way.

The state of emergency and 15 other legislative decrees limit the right of defense, ignore the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy, and, above all, extend procedural deadlines. Thousands of cases are stalled in the offices of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. “My son was captured over a year ago in Ahuachapán when we were on our way home. I have gone to the Attorney General's Office several times, and they have told me not to return until January 2025,” says Lilian, the mother of César, a 20-year-old farmer.

On May 9, 2024, during the state of emergency’s most recent extension, the Legislative Assembly reported that the total number of detainees was 79,947. For its part, the human rights organization Cristosal has registered 261 deaths of detainees under the state of emergency, as of May 22 of the current year. Cristosal revealed that figure in a report by civil society organizations for the United Nations Committee against Torture’s Follow-up Procedure. El Faro has also published testimonies from those released from prison during the state of emergency, describing how some of their cellmates died from torture or systematic abuse.

Francisco was arrested after the state of exception’s ninth extension in January 2023, when the Ministry of Security reported the capture of 62,975 “terrorists.” That figure already exceeded the 60,000 students at the University of El Salvador (UES), the country's only public university. Francisco, who does not have a university degree, was among those detained as alleged “terrorists”. He was prosecuted for illicit association very hastily, as in all secret and express trials under the state of exception. Family members were still inquiring in a police station about the reason for his arrest when they were informed that the hearing had already taken place and that Francisco had been sent to Mariona prison.

In other words, Francisco's family could not present any evidence at the hearing where the judge decided to imprison him. From the earliest months of the state of emergency, violations of the right to defense have been constant: the authorities imprison first and then they investigate.

Something similar happened to 64-year-old businessman Francisco Huezo López, known as Don Paco, who was sent to Mariona prison, unbeknownst to his family, on July 11, 2022. On August 29, 2022, the Attorney General's Office summoned Don Paco's son to explain which documents he could submit to attest to his father's illnesses, present evidence, and justify parole. But on the date that meeting took place, Don Paco had already been dead for five days. His corpse bore evident signs of violence.

After Francisco's arrest, Daniel and other family members dedicated themselves to proving his nephew's innocence “point by point.” As we spoke he had a folder with documents in which it is clear that Francisco has no history with gangs, and that he did not have any tattoos referring to these groups. Daniel explains that, as a result of their efforts, they obtained a release letter, but the prison authorities did not comply with it. He did not want to share any of these documents.

“I get it that you are journalists, and you have a certain freedom to ask these questions,” he said, “or maybe not so much; imagine, you are journalists and you’ve had to go to Costa Rica. And as a civilian, where can I go? Where do we hide if talking about this causes problems?”

I had introduced myself to Daniel as a reporter from El Faro, and he is alluding to the digital news outlet’s administrative and legal move to Costa Rica in April 2024, citing a lack of judicial certainty amid defamation campaigns by the Casa Presidencial; physical monitoring and threats; spying with Pegasus; and multiple audits by the Treasury Ministry. President Nayib Bukele even used a national radio and television broadcast in September 2020 to accuse the newspaper of money laundering. Legally, the newspaper is now in Costa Rica, but El Faro’s journalists remain in El Salvador.

El Faro searched the Guacamaya Leaks —a trove of 10 million emails from the National Civil Police (PNC) and 250,000 from the Armed Forces, leaked in mid-2022— for any background on Francisco. Only one email mentioned Francisco, dated April 3, 2018, four years before the state of emergency began. The email, sent from the Land Transit Division office to the Paracentral Region’s local branch, contains two Excel files and cites an offense Francisco committed: One file says that, as Francisco was driving a microbus on kilometer 39 of the Pan-American Highway, he was sanctioned for a “085 TTO offense.” According to the Police manual of laws and procedures, this offense consists of “not carrying or not possessing a driver's license.” Given the absolute secrecy of procedures under the state of emergency, that’s the only criminal record for Francisco that El Faro could find: driving without a license.

The few documents that El Faro could locate about Francisco's case state that he was imprisoned in Mariona prison, that he fell ill of an unspecified disease, and that he died in the Zacamil hospital a few months later. The documents state when Francisco died and provide the names of three other people who died that month, but El Faro decided not to publish them, in order to protect their identities.

I asked Daniel if his nephew had any known illness at the time of his arrest:

“No sir, not at all,” he said with a smile revealing big, gleaming teeth. “He was a very healthy boy, taller than you.”

The official documents related to Francisco's death do not detail when he became ill or what his ailment was. Nor do they clarify whether he received any treatment at the hospital or whether he was simply taken by ambulance to that hospital’s parking lot. In the section where the expert from Forensic Medicine was supposed to describe the medical assistance that the deceased had received, the report only stated that the information was “not specified.”

Daniel —who with each sentence said that it was the last thing he would say— is not surprised by the lack of interest in investigating the deaths of Francisco and others in prison: “Before, I noticed that when there was something they didn't like, lawyers and judges came out and stated their position. Now, even they are afraid. And if a judge or a lawyer is frightened, what can we do? I watch TV, I see that this girl from Legal Aid [Ingrid Escobar] and the lawyer Lucrecia Landaverde appear on TV. They have some real ovaries!”

Officially, Francisco's cause of death was listed as pulmonary edema. That conclusion is part of a state-of-exception pattern of softening serious human rights violations; by August 2022, Forensic Medicine had found signs of torture and murder in at least 35 of the 69 prison deaths, but the records stated “pulmonary edema” or “[cause of] death under examination.” One might think that even forensic experts were self-censoring when they wrote their reports.

“There are many things to clear up, but I repeat, my sister has decided to leave it alone,” concluded Daniel. “We are afraid that she may be followed. I already experienced that during the war, I know how the State Intelligence works because the National Police were looking for me for no reason. I ask that you leave me your number because I don't know if they have followed you here. I heard on the news that your phones have been tapped. If anything else comes up, it’s better for me to call you. Take care of yourself and keep doing your job.”

* * *

After saying goodbye to Daniel, at around noon on May 9, 2024, I drove for half an hour to the rural outskirts of a coastal city. The sun was stifling. I searched for Carlos on dusty streets dotted with tin houses. A neighbor told me that after Carlos’ arrest, on a date she could not specify, the family migrated to the urban area, so I continued the search the neighborhood. “I haven't heard anything about that dead man,” a shirtless man from a nearby tailor's shop shared, “but go to the end of this street, there is a community there where some troubled people live, maybe they know something there.”

I entered a wide, cemented street. At the end of it, I found a red brick wall that was once stained with graffiti by the 18th Street Sureños, the gang that controlled that community. During the state of emergency, the police covered the symbol with black paint and wrote in yellow letters: “Your friendly police. Get gang members out of this community. Denounce them.” Next to that message, there are three telephone numbers where people can call anonymously to report someone.

“Gang members out of this community. Denounce them,
“Gang members out of this community. Denounce them,'' reads the message on the wall in a community where some relatives of people detained during the state of emergency live in fear of telling their stories. Next to the message there are telephone numbers to call, to denounce someone anonymously. On the left side of this image, it also says: “Your friendly police.” Photo Carlos Barrera

Several neighbors denied knowing Carlos and looked at me strangely when I mentioned the fact that he had died in prison. A lady who was on her way to a store asked me why I needed that information. I showed her my press credential, and after a brief conversation, she pointed me to one of the three alleys in the community to get to the house of the deceased.

Carlos was 29 years old when he was arrested in March 2022, at the beginning of the state of emergency. For over two years, Carlos waited for a trial that never came. He fell ill in Mariona. I saw an official document stating that he received medical treatment, but, once again, Forensic Medicine did not describe what kind. Officially, the cause of death was “pulmonary edema (preliminary).”

“That boy didn't mess with anyone. Look, he was already big. When he was in ninth grade in 2008, his mother would drop him off at school and pick him up every day. Later, when he started high school, he would stay at the high school after his classes because his father is a teacher,” a saleswoman from the community said.

I arrived at Carlos’ house after noon on May 9, 2024. There are steps leading up to a faded green metal door, and to one side a doorbell. In front, the neighboring house is red brick and still has battered Sureños graffiti. I rang the doorbell; after a few minutes, a woman peeked through the wall. “I'm looking for Carlos’ mother,” I said. I gave her the mother’s full name according to the official records.

“She's not here. Why are you looking for her?” the woman said.

After listening to my explanation, the woman's countenance changed from friendly to serious. She asked how I knew about Carlos’ case and who had given me this address. Then, with a cold, disinterested look, she cut the conversation short and went back inside. “No, she doesn't live here. Who told you she lives here? You are mistaken,” was the last thing she said.

* * *

While I was looking for information about Carlos, the neighbors insistently told me about Jesús’ case; he was a young man who worked at Aeroman at the Comalapa airport. A father with one daughter, Jesús was arrested for supposedly having a criminal record. According to his neighbors, his record is that he was caught smoking marijuana during his school days. For seven months he has had a release letter, but the Prison Bureau has refused to comply with the order.

To get to Jesús’ mother’s tin house, you have to pass through a soapy swamp where ducks wander around. Then, there is a wire fence and a sink; that’s where Jesús's mother was. She confirmed that her son was detained and that he has a release letter that no one is addressing. I asked her for an interview.

“Leave me your phone number because I have to consult with my children. My son is a worker, he was his child’s provider, but the way things are now, I can't tell you anything. I have other children and we don't know what could happen.”

* * *

I returned to my office wondering if I had the wrong information about Carlos’ mother. I went back to review documents and discovered a fact that I had overlooked: His father did one of the procedures after Carlos’ death. On May 16, 2024, I returned to that coastal area. First, I looked for Carlos’ grave in the local cemetery. It has a white-painted cement cross in the parched dirt. The cross has a deflated balloon tied to it in the center. Stretching the sad, once-white rubber that is now stained with dirt, is the message: “I love you, daddy.”

Carlos died while in state custody after being captured during the state of emergency. His space doesn’t have a cement structure; a sunflower grows on the surface among some mementos left by family and friends. Photo Carlos Barrera
Carlos died while in state custody after being captured during the state of emergency. His space doesn’t have a cement structure; a sunflower grows on the surface among some mementos left by family and friends. Photo Carlos Barrera

After visiting the grave, I continued searching for Carlos’ father. I arrived at the same address, at the house facing the dilapidated Sureños graffito. I rang the doorbell and the same woman appeared behind the red brick wall and the faded green door.

“I don't understand your insistence,” she said.

I apologized and replied that I was not looking for Carlos’ mother now, but rather for his father. She told me that his father was coming back tonight. I asked if I could wait for him. The woman looked at me for a moment. Her voice broke and she began to cry.

“I'll be honest with you. I am his mother, but understand my pain. All I want is for my son to rest in peace. He is dead. Why talk about the past? You know what the situation is with the government. The government does what it wants and there is nothing we can do. The way things are, you can't go around talking about the government.”

Carlos was a respected young man in his community. The first time I went there, I spoke to around ten people. Franklin told me that he had known “Carlitos” since he was a child and that he was “a good neighbor and a great person.” Teresa told me that Carlos’ death “hurt a lot.” Paty described him as “honest and dedicated.” Xiomara told me that after high school Carlos worked repairing cell phones in the market. “When he was a child, he played with my children; he was a lovely person.”

That afternoon, after seeing Carlos's grave, I saw a woman who, out of fear, decided days before to deny being his mother until tears overwhelmed her days later. That afternoon I saw a woman who understood that, in the face of her son's death, the best thing to do is remain silent. That afternoon I saw a woman who, with the death of her son, has assimilated a violent political message: “The government does what it wants.”

*Translated by Jessica L. Kirstein

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