By Ricardo Flores, La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador
28 November 2018
At the height of the migrant caravan crisis (which has not gone away) in November 2018, the daily Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica produced an article of ‘Stories of forced displacement due to violence’ written by Ricardo Flores. There were six personal stories in the article and ENCA member Jill Powis translated them for the ENCA Newsletter (no.75) which for reasons of space could only include four of them. All of them are included here on The Violence of Development website. We are grateful to Jill for her translations.
Nelson was disappeared and then murdered for refusing to leave his home. The first warning came in 2014 from a neighbour, a woman who had links with members of the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang. She told him that he had to close down his business, which supported his family of seven, on the grounds that “he was selling the same product as her.” After that came more warnings, including death threats, to make him leave, together with his whole family. It was October 2015 when they decided to leave, to stay with relatives, but Nelson, a fictitious name to protect his [family] identity, decided to stay “to guard the house.” His relatives believe that he was killed because, before he was threatened, he worked for a community organisation running violence prevention schemes to improve life within the community.
Prior to Nelson’s death, the family had sought protection from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – PDDH), but this opened a case file only after his murder. The PDDH informed the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía), and all that happened was that some family members who gave evidence were named as key witnesses in the legal process.
Cristosal [see note below] lodged an application for protective measures for Nelson’s family with the Constitutional Court on 9 June 2017. The application was accepted four months later, but by this time they were already out of the country. They had lost their jobs, their homes, the right to freedom of movement and the young people were forced to abandon their studies.
This is the story of a family 35 strong, including children and adolescents, who were victims of threats, physical attacks, sexual abuse and rape by gang members – all for being relatives of members of the armed forces. The gang attacked the family on various dates and different places. The threats became so bad that they were forced to leave the town.
The family moved to relatives living in an area of the country without gangs. However, there they suffered violence again, but this time from the state. Police officers carried out an operation in the community, shooting “to intimidate”. A bullet hit a woman from the family, killing her instantly. This forced them to move again.
The family reported all the attacks by the gang to the authorities. The police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office solely designated them as key witnesses in the legal process so that they could testify – there was no progress on the cases. One of the victims of the forced displacement also filed a complaint with the General Inspectorate of the National Civil Police about his mother’s death at the hands of the officers who carried out the operation. The local police’s official version was that the woman died “in the context of a confrontation with gang members.”
This was the only one of the six cases where the Constitutional Court issued a final judgment in favour of a family displaced by the violence in El Salvador, following a an application for protection measures filed by Cristosal. However, the measures ordered by the Court benefited only a few members of the family, with the rest leaving the country under the international protection system.
Margarita and Luisa (not their real names) were threatened with rape if they did not leave the community. The two women, mother and daughter, had a food business which involved visiting various apartments. The threats began when some gang members came to live in the area.
In response to the threats, which were also directed at Margarita’s husband and another daughter, the family decided to move, but when they settled down in another place, they again suffered extortion from another gang.
When the family reported the gang to the Anti-Extortion Unit of the National Civil Police, it stated that its response would be limited to arresting the suspects and starting legal proceedings against them “because it does not have enough officers to provide the family with protection.”
Sofia was held captive and raped by a gang for being the daughter of a policeman. When the teenager disappeared, her father went to the police, but they failed to respond immediately. When they finally found her, the police accused Sofía (not her real name) of being a member of the gang.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office offered protection measures, but only for Sofia, a minor; and so the family, five people in total, preferred to move, where they remained in hiding. Despite not leaving the house, the gang members managed to find them and continued to issue them with death threats. This meant that they were forced to move house again until they got help to leave El Salvador.
In view of the poor response by state institutions, the Constitutional Court accepted the application for protection measures for all five members of the family, but by this time they had already left the country.
A large family requested international protection measures in the wake of the murder of a young woman and her sister, as well as the kidnapping of a baby girl who was only months old. The investigation of the case produced evidence that the crimes were committed by gang members with the aim of “getting the baby.” The other members of the family were threatened so that they would leave, and so after the funeral for the two women, the family abandoned their belongings, homes and jobs.
Cristosal concluded that the State does not have the capacity to protect a large family.
Victoria, her adult daughter and two children lived in a house where they had a family business. One afternoon, an armed gang came to the store. Victoria (not her real name) was shot dead at the scene, while her daughter suffered bullet wounds to various organs. Her relatives had to take her from the hospital because the gang continued to look for her and they feared that she would be found. When she recovered, three months later, she decided to move with the two children to a house belonging to another relative. However, an informer from the gang found her and warned them to leave the area “if she did not want to have any problems”.
As a result of this fresh threat, the woman was forced to move again with her children to another relative in another region of the country. Unlike the other cases, this family did not want to take advantage of the government shelter system, but instead wanted measures that would allow them to be protected by the authorities in the place where they had relocated.
Cristosal presented their request to the Constitutional Court and it was accepted on 11 July 2018, when it ordered protective measures.
The trial for Victoria’s murder resulted in the conviction of those responsible, who are currently awaiting sentencing.
Note: Cristosal works to advance human rights in Central America through rights-based research, learning, and programming. They accompany victims of violence to provide protection when they need it most, repair the lingering effects of human rights violations, and build human rights frameworks to create conditions where peace is possible. https://www.cristosal.org/