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

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

Ingrid Escobar, director of the rights organization, said she had received 500 reports of deaths in state custody but had confirmed about half of them, including two minors. Last year, the organization recorded 126 deaths, only half the number recorded this year.


In March 2022, Bukele announced a “state of exception,” renouncing many constitutional rights to fight gangs terrorizing the Central American nation.

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

Since then, El Salvador has arrested 80,000 people – more than 1% of the country’s population – and thrown them in prison, often with little evidence of their gang ties and almost no access to due process. Prisons have been compared to torture chambers, where appalling conditions reign.

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

While the government is accused of committing massive human rights violations as part of its crackdown, Bukele remains widely popular in El Salvador because homicide rates fell sharply after the arrests. 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 took advantage of this popularity to be re-elected in February, despite the country’s constitution barring second-term presidents.

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

The rights group estimates that of those arrested during the two years of the emergency regime, 35% are innocent and says 94% of those who died had no gang affiliation.


“The majority were workers such as informal traders, taxi drivers and/or informal transport workers, farmers, fishermen, evangelical pastors and preachers, municipal employees and a trade unionist,” the report said.

Humanitarian Legal Relief also called on the Salvadoran government to investigate “homicides” in prisons and “all forced disappearances of detainees.”

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