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At least 241 people have died in El Salvador’s prisons during the ‘war on gangs,’ rights group says

SAN SALVADOR (AP) — At least 241 people have died in El Salvador prisons since the start of President Nayib Bukele’s “war on gangs” two years ago, according to the organization Humanitarian Legal Relief.

Ingrid Escobar, director of the rights organization, said they received 500 reports of deaths in state custody, but they have confirmed about half, including two minors. Last year, the organization documented 126 deaths, just half of the number they documented this year.

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In March 2022, Bukele announced a “state of exception,” waiving many constitutional rights to combat the gangs that have terrorized the Central American nation.

Men detained under a state of emergency are transported to a detention center in a cargo truck, in Soyapango, El Salvador, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. Lawmakers on Friday, March 8, 2024, granted a request by President Nayib Bukele for the 24th consecutive one-month extension of an anti-gang emergency decree.  (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Since then, El Salvador has arrested 80,000 people – more than 1% of the country’s population – throwing them into prison, often with little evidence of their ties to gangs and almost no access to due process. The prisons have been likened to torture chambers, with horrifying conditions.

According to the NGO report, “of these deaths, 44% died of violent death, serious torture, 29% due to lack of medical attention.”

While the government is accused of committing mass human rights abuses in their crackdown, Bukele remains highly popular in El Salvador because the homicide rates sharply dipped following the detentions. The Central American nation went from being one of the most dangerous countries in the world to having the lowest homicide rate in the region.

Bukele rode that popularity into re-election in February, despite the country’s constitution prohibiting second terms for presidents.

The government has already had to release 7,000 people due to lack of evidence and El Salvador’s vice president in January told the Associated Press the government had “made mistakes” in their arrests.

The rights group estimates that of the people arrested in the two years of the exception regime, 35% are innocent and affirms that 94% of the deceased had no gang affiliation.

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“The majority were working people such as informal traders, cab drivers and/or informal transport workers, farmers, fishermen, evangelical pastors and preachers, municipal employees and one trade unionist,” the report states.

Humanitarian Legal Relief also demanded El Salvador’s government investigate “homicides” that have occurred in prisons and “all the forced disappearances of detainees.”

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