Humanitarian Crisis In Salvadorian Jails

Salvadorian President, Nayib Bukele, announced on Wednesday the enclosing of multiple prisoners’ cells to increase the measures against gang violence in the country. El Salvador is currently under lockdown, due to COVID-19, and as the country shut down, the homicide toll rose from 2 homicides per day to 77 killings in 4 days.

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. However, the country has seen a decrease in the number of deaths, from approximately 17 daily in 2015 to around 2 deaths per day in March 2020. Bukele believes these measures have allowed the improvement of the security conditions in the country. However, organizations such as Humans Right Watch and the international community, have shown preoccupation towards the President’s latest actions, questioning his ethics and inhumane practices.

On April 25th, the President twitted pictures from the Izaco jail that showed nearly naked prisoners sitting one after another with face masks and their hands tied to their backs. They sat so close that the inmates had to lay on each other.

In El Salvador, around 80% of the violence in the country comes from orders of jailed criminals, according to BBC News. After the rise of deaths in the country during the lockdown, Bukele opted for drastic measures against the prisoners.

“They won’t be able to see outside the cell anymore,” tweeted the President. “This will keep them from communicating with signs in the hall. They will be inside, in the dark with their friends from the other gang.”

The overcrowded prisons in El Salvador, which in total count with a capacity for around 18,000 prisoners, currently holds more than 38,000 inmates. Therefore, there’s extreme heat inside the cells and the unsanitary conditions have provoked the death of multiple prisoners due to tuberculosis.

The current conditions at Salvadorian prisons look like a time-bomb that could go extremely bad if coronavirus cases start emerging in jails. Mixing rival gangs in the same dark cells, to disable communication and limit the contact between members of a gang, as Bukele desires, could backfire and spark violence instead.

According to the Human Rights Watch, Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, ‘‘all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Judges from El Salvador have argued that those with terminal illnesses should be on house arrest during the pandemic, but no further declaration on what actions are being taken to protect the inmates from COVID-19 has been made by the government.

Indeed, Rogelio Rivas, Justice and Security Minister said that inmates ‘‘are a threat to state security and we’re going to fight them with all force to protect Salvadorans lives,”. Rivas stated this amid critiques from the international community, and Bukele called for the use of ‘lethal force’ if necessary.

On the other hand, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said they have a duty to prevent El Salvador from becoming a ‘dictatorship’, after the President used the military to intimidate the Congress recently. Therefore, Vivanco said the international community plays a very important role in this case, to stop corruption before it is too late.

Both the Organization of American States and the Human Rights Watch have considered invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the country, as stated by Reuters.

Reducing the number of prisoners by allowing more house arrests has been proposed by the leaders of the opposition; however, by doing so, they could risk the security of the country. At the same time, the humanitarian crisis in Salvadorian jails cannot be overlooked. What can be done?