What the ‘state of exception’ means in El Salvador

February 2023

The state of exception under which El Salvador’s population now lives was instigated in March 2022 by the country’s President Nayib Bukele. Although the state of exception is a legal mechanism designed to address an emergency situation and is therefore intended to be temporary and extraordinary, Bukele’s continued renewal of the state lends it a permanent and indefinite character under which constitutional rights are restricted. The state of exception was declared as a response to gang violence, but the security forces have committed widespread abuses of human and constitutional rights since the policy’s introduction. These abuses include the detention of many people under the suspicion of gang membership.

The Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Exchange and Solidarity Centre), or CIS, is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which runs a variety of community development programmes throughout the country relating to housing, water provision, sanitation, education and farming. It also runs election monitoring delegations. The organisation’s end of year review includes a description of what the state of exception means to some of the people involved in their development programmes. We include extracts from their report below. We are grateful to Leslie Schuld, director of the CIS in San Salvador, for permission to reproduce their article here.


CIS Review of 2022, December 2022

The current situation:  Constitutional rights have been suspended since 27 March 2022 – we are going into our ninth month of the government’s ‘war on gangs’. While people applaud the arrest of gang members, many innocents have been caught in these dragnet operations. Dragnet was a popular TV show in the 1960s about apprehending criminals, but a dragnet is also used for fishing to drag and pick up fish, also snagging anything in its way. Government officials have referred to casting this dragnet knowing many innocents are caught up in it; they say they will let them go if they have no criminal background. Nonetheless, only 800 of over 54,000 arrested to date have been set free, when government sources state that at least 20 per cent have no criminal ties.

The persons set free include those with health conditions, so the government wouldn’t be held responsible for their deaths. A few prisoners have been freed in the middle of the night with no known process or criteria for being let out. And news reports say gang leaders with ties to government officials have also been released.

The CIS continues to focus its efforts to free 22 fishermen from the Holy Spirit Island who have been unjustly arrested, an island with no gangs and no delinquency, and where the CIS has worked since Hurricane Mitch in 1988. This is not a story from the bible, even though of the 22 fishermen, five are named Joseph, two are named Jesus, one is Christian, another is Saviour, among other biblical names.

The CIS was conceded a special hearing on 10th October for the first five fishermen who were arrested from the island. The judge in San Miguel stated that she had no proof of criminal activity, but we had not proven their innocence or ties to the island. We had stacks of sworn statements from community leaders, clients and family members – for the men who had lived on the island for 40 years or were born there. On top of that, over 30 family members travelled from the island to the hearing on 10th October, the very day that Hurricane Julia hit El Salvador. They braved the dangerously rough ocean in small motorboats. They took back roads to the judicial centre as the river had washed out the main route. CIS members and lawyer drove hours from San Salvador and had to wait 30 minutes on two occasions as boulders were cleared out of the road. Everything was suspended that day except the judicial system. Only the lawyer was allowed to be present in the hearing with his stacks of written testimonies, while we waited outside. Four of the five fishermen were present only via a virtual screen. The judge need only to look out of the window at humble family members to know that the men had family ties. Their children were left at home because of the danger that day. The judge focussed on one of the many false accusations – we had not proven that they were not providing food to a gang encampment in the mangroves around the island. CIS has asked: if this encampment exists in the mangroves, why has nobody been arrested there? How big is this encampment, that 22 men must provide food? Since the men work all day fishing, as boat taxis or other labour, who is preparing the food?

The CIS is also offering counselling, food baskets and organisational and legal support to others. Unjust arrests are not the only human rights violations, although they are the gravest since those arrested are automatically given a six month provisional sentence and an added six months after that. Those arrested have not had a visit from a lawyer or family member since the time of their arrest.

We share with you just two examples of other human rights violations faced by the CIS community.

Authorities visited and ransacked one scholarship student’s home four times. CIS provided refuge for fear of her arrest. Afterward, in a fifth visit to her home, the police handcuffed her mother and put her on her knees. She was given three days to turn in a gang member or face her own arrest and the arrest of her daughter (the CIS scholarship student), which they threatened would ruin her career.

Another CIS scholarship home was visited by police at 3 am. The father who suffers from cancer was beaten up. The police took pictures of the family members and their identity documents. A few days later the gangs came to the same home and threatened to kill the daughter (the CIS scholarship student) if the family did not find a house and a title for gang members. CIS counselling and support helped to protect these families.

So, while there is an illusion of safety, projected by millions of dollars spent on publicity saying how safe El Salvador is now, many Salvadorans with scarce economic resources are living in fear. While homicide rates are down, the security, income and well-being of thousands of poor families – who are not involved in criminal activity – are being compromised.

The CIS website:  www.cis-elsalvador.org