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Extended suspensions of due process occurring in El Salvador

UN says sweeping measures are a violation of international law

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A sculpture on the government compound in El Salvador. (Photo by Tracey King-Ortega)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has signed on to a letter by CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), calling for an end to both the extended suspensions of due process rights and the expansion of indefinite detention in the Central American nation.

CISPES is a national activist organization based in Washington, D.C. It fosters international solidarity between U.S. residents and popular social movements in El Salvador.

The United Nations Human Rights Office says the sweeping measures by El Salvador’s government to combat gang violence violates international human rights law.

“There have been countless testimonies of arbitrary arrests of non-gang affiliated people across the country and many reports detailing how this state of exception disproportionately impacts marginalized communities and is being carried out in a way that is doubly harming people in neighborhoods that were already afflicted by gang violence and are now experiencing elevated levels of militarized police violence and violations of basic human rights” said CISPES’s Yesenia Portillo in a letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The New York Times reported that a well-known pastor who was a gang member more than a decade ago was arrested in the vicinity of his church. He has dedicated his life into convincing gang members to leave a life of crime and be reintegrated into society.

On the weekend of March 26-27, Salvadoran gangs went on a killing spree, resulting in the bloodiest days in El Salvador since the end of its civil war more than 30 years ago. Eighty-seven people were killed over the weekend. In response, the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, declared a state of emergency, suspending constitutional rights, including the presumption of innocence.

Nayib Bukele is president of El Salvador.

According to the Washington Office on Latin America, “the government’s actions before, during and after the wave of violence are a high-level threat against human rights, citizen security, and the rule of law in El Salvador.”

The government blamed the violence on the gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. Since declaring a state of exception, the Salvadoran government has arrested more than 10,000 young men. While the government claimed it was perpetrators who were in custody, ordinary citizens who lived in the poor neighborhoods were caught up in the sweep and jailed without due process.

Bukele, the 38-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, won the presidency in 2019 with 53% of the popular vote by running on an anti-corruption platform. Many Salvadorans are glad to see action being taken against the gangs, but critics believe El Salvador’s justice system can prosecute those involved in the killings without the suspension of fundamental rights.

In conversation with their global partners, the PC(USA) has decided to join in signing the letter and sees the importance of “a pastoral letter that celebrates and recognizes the hope of Salvadorans in the face of sin and announces the reign of God. “

For most of the 20th century, El Salvador has been plagued by political and economic chaos, resulting in economic instability and characterized by coups and a succession of authoritarian leaders and civil unrest that culminated in the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. An official end to the conflict was declared in 1992 with a negotiated settlement that created a multiparty constitutional republic that remains today.

The Salvadoran people are proud of the democracy they have worked hard to build, but that democracy feels fragile today. While several important reforms strengthened democracy immediately following the civil war, many recommendations were cast aside. Political corruption, militarism and poverty continue to impact the country.

Tracey King-Ortega

In the wake of the civil war, the U.S. expanded its deportation powers in 1996, leading to a wave of deportations in the mid-1990s. Among these massive deportations were members the Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs which had begun in the streets of Los Angeles. Once in El Salvador, they found fertile conditions to grow and take control of wide swaths of territory. Thus far, Salvadoran policy has emulated its history of militarism and repression and incorporated inspiration from U.S.-inspired tough-on-crime policies to crack down on gang activity.

World Mission’s regional liaison for Central America, Tracey King-Ortega, said, “To a certain degree, what we are seeing is not surprising — just an affirmation of the tendency we are seeing both in El Salvador and throughout the region, and world in fact, of growing authoritarianism and consolidation of power. Though this follows in a long tradition of corruption and militarism that blends a history of Salvadoran dictatorships with U.S. tough-on-crime policies, it is still concerning and worthy of our attention and prayers.”


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