Human rights group alleges growing number of unjustified arrests in El Salvador (Infographic)

Security forces in El Salvador have arrestd over 36,000 people in the past 10 weeks since the congress suspended civil rights in an attempt to crack down on illegal street gangs.

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Maria Dolores Garcia, the mother of Esmeralda Dominguez, looks out at the plants dying in her daughter’s unattended garden, in the Sisiguayo community in Jiquilisco, in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador on May 12. Her daughter is among thousands arrested since the congress granted President Nayib Bukele a state of emergency declaration suspending civil liberties after street gangs killed dozens of people in late March.

MARCOS ALEMÁN and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, Associated Press

LA LIMONERA, El Salvador  — Esmeralda Domínguez was about 100 yards from home April 19 when soldiers and police blocked her. Her aunt, who lived nearby, protested. Domínguez was no criminal, she insisted. A soldier loaded the young woman into a truck. 

Over the past 10 weeks, El Salvador’s security forces have arrested more than 36,000 people since the congress granted President Nayib Bukele the power to suspend some civil liberties to pursue powerful street gangs. Lawmakers extended those powers another 30 days last week as public opinion polls showed broad popular support.

However, a growing number of the arrests appear unjustified, human rights groups allege.

Cristosal, a nongovernmental organization, has documented more than 500 cases of arbitrary arrests since the state of exception was imposed March 27, according to its director, Noah Bullock. Amnesty International said Thursday its investigators found thousands of people had been arrested without legal requirements met.

Bukele sought the expanded powers after El Salvador’s street gangs killed dozens of people in late March. Two weeks into the mass detentions, the president acknowledged there could be an “error,” and 1% of those arrested may not have any ties to the gangs. 

Now, under the new powers, authorities do not have to give a reason to arrest. Detainees can be held 15 days without seeing a judge and without access to lawyers.

When those arrested do finally get a lawyer, the public defender’s office is overwhelmed. Domínguez’s family and some 50 others made filings with the courts known as habeas corpus, which order that someone in custody be brought before a court and place the burden of proof on the government. Cristosal has been helping with many of those cases, including Domínguez’s.

The most common crime attributed to those arrested, including Domínguez, is illegal association for allegedly belonging to a gang. Judges have ordered nearly 26,000 people held in jail, prosecutors say.

In a court hearing May 2, the judge ordered Domínguez to six more months of pretrial detention.

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