Government extends a state of emergency with unprecedented mass arrests and restrictions on civic rights.
Fundamental rights must not become a casualty of efforts to address gang violence in El Salvador, said global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (Redlad) today.
On 27th March 2022, El Salvador’s government declared a state of emergency and suspended constitutional rights such as freedoms of association and peaceful assembly and due process guarantees. The measure was announced in response to a wave of gang-related homicides at the end of March. Since then, legislators have approved a series of amendments to the Penal Code that could seriously endanger freedom of expression. The state of emergency was again extended on 24 April for another 30 days.
Since the state of emergency was implemented, over 16,000 alleged gang members have been arrested. Amid the crackdown, there have been reports of arbitrary detentions and police officers being made to fulfil arrest quotas, encouraging further due process violations.
Civil society groups, activists and journalists speaking out against abusive measures and democratic backsliding have been harassed and vilified by public authorities, including President Nayib Bukele himself. On social media and in public statements, authorities have disparaged the work of these groups, sometimes even alleging without evidence that they have links with criminal organisations. These statements by leaders are often followed by an avalanche of insults, threats and harassment by government supporters, fostering hostility toward civil society and the press.
“We call on El Salvador’s authorities to stop treating civil society, human rights defenders and journalists as adversaries. Stigmatisation contributes to an already difficult environment, ultimately putting defenders’ lives and integrity at risk”, said Débora Leão, CIVICUS Monitor’s Americas Researcher.
Earlier in 2022, Pegasus spyware was discovered on the mobile phones of over 30 journalists and human rights activists in the country. The spyware revelations came at a time when there were little to no checks on the President’s power. In March 2022, El Salvador was added to the CIVICUS Monitor’s Watchlist of countries with a recent and rapid decline in civic freedoms.
President Nayib Bukele took office in June 2019 after running as a political outsider. He was criticised for his authoritarian decision-making and faced resistance from the Legislative Assembly and the justice system when attempting to implement controversial policies that affected human rights. However, public support for the government remained high, and Bukele’s allies gained a supermajority in the legislature in February 2021. This was followed by a quick undermining of the separation of powers: newly elected lawmakers replaced five judges in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, who in turn published a resolution enabling consecutive re-election - previously banned by the Constitution. Since then, civil society has been shut out of participation in the legislative process, and government allies have sought to make regressive legal changes.
The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in El Salvador as obstructed (the third-worst rating a country can be given). There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where power holders heavily contested civic space and impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).