Is El Salvador Using COVID-19 To Cover Up Extrajudicial Killings?

On May 6, medical personnel in the department of La Paz delivered the body of suspected gang member Luis Iván Mejía Bonilla to his family after he had allegedly died due to complications of COVID-19. Though the body came with strict instructions not to open the coffin, according to El Diario de Hoy, friends and family did not believe the original story and found Mejía’s corpse bruised, bloodied, and still handcuffed upon opening. Univisión reports that Mejía’s body showed signs of extreme torture, including gashes on his face, blood dripping from his eyes and ears, and teeth that appeared to have been intentionally broken. He died less than a week after being arrested along with nine others on suspicions that they had a hand in the murder of a soldier. Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, Director General of the National Civil Police, has confirmed the exhumation of Mejía for further investigation, according to La Prensa Gráfica.

Those close to Mejía have denied that he was in a gang and doubt his involvement in the soldier’s death. His neighbor, Ronald Reyes, describes him as a happy man who wanted to make an honest living for his family in a statement to El Diario de Hoy. Jorge Beltrán, a journalist in San Salvador, has reiterated this, telling Univisión that “in El Salvador, it is easy to know when a person is involved in a gang … as much as I have investigated there are no indications that he was immersed in criminal activities.” Mejía’s family and friends have expressed fear in discussing such with news outlets in case of retaliation from the police. Reyes even claims that, in direct conflict with a statement made by La Paz Police Chief Óscar Aguilar on the nature of Mejía’s death, there were no health officials at his funeral. Until now, this has been the standard practice for the funerals of coronavirus patients.

Whether Mejía was or was not a gang member does not change the fact that his body shows clear evidence of torture, and there is a strong case to be made that he is one of many victims of El Salvador’s brutal police violence. In April, President Nayib Bukele authorized the use of lethal force by members of the police and military after over 50 people were killed in a single weekend. The measures Bukele has taken have been described as authoritarian and inhumane, including forcing prisoners to line-up on top of each other during 24-hour lockdowns, purposefully housing members of rival gangs together, and welding sheets of metal over cell doors. He has proudly shared images of these incidents on his own personal Twitter account.

President Bukele is less than a year into his presidential term yet, unfortunately, policies like these are anything but new. El Salvador’s recent history is littered with extreme militarization in a desperate attempt to curb the gang violence that has continued to brutalize much of the country since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in the early 1990s. President Francisco Flores first introduced the Plan Mano Dura (“Iron Fist Plan”) to increase the power of Salvadoran security forces and curb gang activity. Since it was declared unconstitutional in 2006 and then subsequently brought back through President Antonio Saca’s Super Mano Dura, La Mano Dura has become a defining feature of Salvadoran security policy. Most prominently, it has meant a huge increase in police and military budgets (funded by the United States in many cases), as well as the encouragement of the public to ostracize and engage in violence against current and former gang members. It has also been overwhelmingly criticized for a litany of human rights violations.

Of course, in a country as small and as effected by violence as El Salvador, legislation that strengthens the power of the police and military over civil affairs remain extremely popular among the people. Even with ample proof to the contrary, there is a common perception that the only way to combat indiscriminate gang violence is to grant security forces that same indiscriminate power. Mejía, it seems, is only the latest casualty in a detailed pattern of often-arbitrary state-sanctioned violence, this time with an added excuse under the guise of a death from the COVID-19 virus. It falls into a dangerous trend common to the governments of Central America’s Northern Triangle, and certainly speaks to the nature of Bukele’s still-new presidency, a man once hoped to be indicative of a wave of change in El Salvador.

Samantha De Jesus