SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Jesús Joya says his brother was “special” -- at 45, he was childlike, eager to please. He was as far from a gang member as anyone could be. And yet the last time he saw Henry, he was boarding a bus to prison.
“Henry, you’re going to get out,” Jesús shouted. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
From his seat, Henry responded with a small wave. A police officer smacked him in the head.
Three weeks before, on March 26, El Salvador’s street gangs had killed 62 people across the country, igniting a nationwide furor. President Nayib Bukele and his allies in congress launched a war against the gangs and suspended constitutional rights.
Nearly seven months later, this “state of exception” is still widely popular. But gangsters are not the only ones caught up in a dragnet that has been haphazard, with fatal consequences.
The arrests of more than 55,000 people have swamped an already overwhelmed criminal justice system.
Defendants arrested on the thinnest of suspicions are dying in prison before any authority looks closely at their cases. At least 80 people arrested under the state of exception have succumbed without being convicted of anything, according to a network of non-governmental organizations trying to track them. The government has provided no figures.
Life in the prisons is brutal; the Bukele administration turned down AP requests to visit them. Defendants disappear into the system, leaving families to track them down. A month after Henry’s arrest, guards at the Mariona prison north of San Salvador told Jesús that Henry was no longer there. That’s all they would say.
A local newspaper photographer had captured the image of Henry, already dressed in prison whites, spotting Jesús in the crowd as he was taken away. For more than two months, Jesús carried a clipping of that photo to every prison in El Salvador, and then to every hospital.
Have you seen this man, he asked. Have you seen my brother?
When police and soldiers fanned out across El Salvador to make their arrests earlier this year, Bukele tweeted the daily number of “terrorists” detained and talked tough about making their lives miserable.
Police and soldiers encircled neighborhoods or towns, set up checkpoints and searched door to door. They grabbed people standing in the street, commuting to work, at their jobs, in their homes. Sometimes it was a tattoo that got their attention, a picture in someone’s cell phone. Sometimes, they carried lists of names, people who had prior records or brushes with the law. They encouraged anonymous tipsters to drop a dime on gang members or their collaborators.
Some police commanders imposed arrest quotas and encouraged officers to massage details.
It quickly became apparent that the president’s plan did not extend beyond making mass arrests.
Lawmakers bought time by suspending arrestees’ access to lawyers, extending from three days to 15 days the period someone could be held without charges and lifting the cap for how long someone could be held before trial. Judges almost automatically sent those arrested to prison for six months while prosecutors tried to build cases.
Judges are under tremendous pressure to go along with the president’s goals to protect their jobs, said Sidney Blanco Reyes, a judge forced to retire after a legislative reform established an age cap last year. “It’s as though the fate of those locked up depends on what the president says.”
By the government’s own account, El Salvador’s prisons were already overcrowded before the war against the gangs. The president quickly announced the construction of a new mega prison, but it remains unfinished. Seven months later, El Salvador’s incarcerated population has more than doubled.