Prison Torture in El Salvador’s “War On Gangs”

Most if not all human rights are inalienable to all humans regardless of their circumstances or actions. However, most prisoners are not privileged to these inherent rights. Many people think that certain acts or crimes exempt the person committing these acts or crimes from their human rights and dignity. One of these people is the government of El Salvador, where the torture of inmates in their prisons is the norm.

Cristosal, El Salvador’s primary human rights organisation, published an exhaustive, 107-page long report about the treatment of inmates in EL Salvador’s prison. After a year of state emergency announced by President Nayib Bukele for his government’s “war on gangs”.

Cristosal interviewed several inmates who were incarcerated during the state of emergency but were released later when proven innocent, and the friends or family of inmates who died during the same period.

Prisoners were regularly tortured and dehumanised. Inmates were electrocuted, made to eat their food off the floor with just their mouths, and exposed to untreated skin fungus. Cristosal documented 153 deaths of prison inmates between March 27, 2022, and March 27, 2023, all of whom were detained in the same period. 29 of those died “violent deaths” and 46 died of “probably violent deaths”. More inmate deaths have been reported after March 27, 2023, but haven’t been included in the report. 

The 29 violent and 47 probable violent deaths carry a typical pattern between them. Lacerations, bruises from being beaten, acute wounds, and signs of choking or strangling were found in all 75 deaths. “Mechanical asphyxiation” (loss of breathing caused by an outside force) was the most common cause of death reported in the medical-legal reports.

Inmates made to kneel inside a prison
Image by Reuters

Mechanical asphyxiation (choking or strangling in simpler terms) and immersion asphyxiation (drowning) were methods of torture in El Salvador during the 1970 and 1992 civil wars. However, these aren’t the only forms of torture implemented by the El Salvador prison authorities. The autopsy of a 32-year-old man’s dead body determined the cause of death as a closed thorax due to severe bruising. The man also had deep wounds on the elbows, bruises on the forearms, and an 8cm wound on the head.

Several deaths also occurred due to unattended mortal illnesses and a lack of healthcare. A 50-year-old woman who suffered from liver disease was not provided with the medication that her family brought to the prison where she was detained. The Authorities said that she would receive the medication once “the doctor would let them know” according to the report.

This number of deaths is not the full story, however. Many deaths, according to the report, were either misdiagnosed, like in the case of a 42-year-old woman who was announced dead due to suffocation from a nasal tumour, which is opposed by her family who did not know about any cancer she may be suffering from. Another such case of a 44-year-old man who died of pneumonia according to the autopsy, however, the several wounds on his body and the severe loss in weight which made him unrecognisable to his family, were mentioned in the autopsy but not factored in the cause of death.

There’s also the factor of mass graves and mislabeling of the dead. The report notes 4 cases of inmate deaths being mislabeled and hence not reported to their families. One such case was a 45-year-old man who was moved to the Institute of Legal Medicine owing to his mental disabilities under a name that was different from the name under which he was buried in the mass grave in La Bermeja Memorial Park. Interviews also revealed the brutal torture of the man while in prison. He was “kicked in the stomach” which made him bleed from the nose and mouth, lose mobility, and not be able to eat. His cause of death was determined to be pulmonary oedema despite forensic photographs reveal only facial oedema. He also did not receive any medical attention for both injuries.

prisoner made to kneel by a guard
Image by Reuters

The prisoners who were “saved” from the torture within the prisons by the legal system or by simply being moved to a hospital due to the injuries they sustained in the prison, left the institution with severe injuries and health issues that led to deaths after being freed.

Inmates were also moved between institutions without their families or next of kin being informed, essentially making the inmate disappear from the public eye and the legal system.

The inmates were regularly given electric shocks by the prison guards while they were kneeling defenselessly on the ground and posed no threat to the guard, another inmate, or even themselves. In some prisons, the inmates were only given a cup of water for a whole day. One of the interviewed inmates- a 20-year-old man, recalled a story of a guard who threw a bucket full of food on the muddy and filthy ground and made them eat it using just their mouths. If any inmate were to use their hands, they would be taken away from the rest and beaten up by the guards. 

The same week as that story, a human rights organisation’s representative visited the prison to report on the treatment of inmates there. The guards had warned and threatened the inmates before the visit that anyone who speaks up about the condition and treatment to the representative would “die from electric shocks.”

El Salvador’s government has arrested and detained almost 67,000 individuals since the state of emergency that started on March 27, 2022. These inmates were arrested under the guise of the government’s “war on gangs”, however not all of these are gang members. 5,000 of the inmates arrested since the state of emergency have since been released as innocent citizens.

Human rights and Human dignity is inalienable even to incarcerated inmates not just because many of them are innocent and not fairly tried in a court of law, but because no human, no matter how horrible or criminal, should ever be treated this way. Bukele has simply ignored this report and other testimonies by calling them “gang sympathisers” and demonising any opposition to his decisions.

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