Social Justice

Women and LGBTQ people caught up in El Salvador’s state of emergency

The government's anti-gang measures are threatening the innocent, vulnerable and marginalised, say human rights groups.
Keiry Molina’s world turned upside down last May when a police officer arrived at her home in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The 46-year-old trans woman was arrested and taken to a police station, where she discovered that four anonymous tipsters had accused her of extortion and involvement with the country’s notorious criminal gangs.
Keiry Molina’s world turned upside down last May when a police officer arrived at her home in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The 46-year-old trans woman was arrested and taken to a police station, where she discovered that four anonymous tipsters had accused her of extortion and involvement with the country’s notorious criminal gangs.

Molina is a hairdresser, who is well known in the community as an animal rights activist who spent her free time rescuing stray dogs. Her family lives in a poor neighbourhood in Soyapango on the outskirts of the capital, has no ties to any gangs and was shocked by the allegations of extortion, says Molina’s niece Sofía.

Sofía says she barely had time to say goodbye to her aunt before she was taken away. “She was the breadwinner of the family, and she raised my sister and me. Since they took her away nine months ago, we’ve had to find ways to support our grandmother [Keiry’s mother],” Sofía told openDemocracy.

The initial charges of extortion were eventually changed to "unlawful association”, a crime punishable by up to six years in prison for those who participate in or benefit from gang activities.

Molina was arrested under the state of emergency declared last March by President Nayib Bukele, following a spate of gang-related killings. The aim, according to the government, was to eradicate the main criminal organisations, or maras, in the Central American country – including the notorious Mara Salvatrucha 13 (often abbreviated to MS-13) and Barrio 18.

Key constitutional rights, such as freedom of association, assembly, communication and privacy, were suspended, as was the requirement that police must provide evidence for detaining people.

The state of emergency was meant to be temporary, but Congress, which is controlled by the 41-year-old president’s party New Ideas, has voted each month since to extend the decree. It has also passed legislation allowing children as young as 12 to be imprisoned for alleged gang affiliation.

The problem, according to human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Salvadoran NGO Cristosal, is that tens of thousands of people have been detained without due process, and the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups have been trampled on. The enhanced powers granted to law enforcement agencies have also impacted people with no criminal connections, including women, children and members of the LGBTQ community – such as Molina.

Molina, who is awaiting sentencing, is being held in a special LGBTQ section of the women’s prison, but Sofía fears her aunt could be targeted and mistreated by prison staff. Like all those arrested under the state of emergency, Molina is denied family visits.

Sofía says her aunt falls into the category of “innocent people paying for something they have never done”. She adds: “Don't be fooled – not all the people detained under the state of emergency are criminals.”

Human rights violations

According to a joint report released in December by HRW and Cristosal, the El Salvadoran government is engaged in widespread human rights violations across the country.

These include violations of due process, severe prison overcrowding and deaths in custody. The report says at least 90 people have died in police custody, with the bereaved families alleging that their loved ones have been buried in mass graves. Sometimes, the authorities don’t even notify families of their relative’s death, the report says.

Separately, HRW and Cristosal have obtained – and partly reviewed – recently leaked government data. This suggests that “mass due process violations” have occurred during the detention of tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of children, who are now kept in overcrowded prisons. According to the data, between March and late August 2022, 1,082 children (918 boys and 164 girls) were arrested and sent to pre-trial detention. Twenty-one of those children were aged 12 or 13.

Cristosal says its review of 3,200 cases shows that at least 416 detainees are women and 53 are LGBTQ people. Cristosal’s investigations director Rina Montti says the police have a daily quota of arrests and innocent people get caught in the crackdown. “They began arresting anyone who fits the profile of a gang member [even though] there is no evidence justifying their detention. Within the prison system, there are obviously many people that could be innocent.”

In his update to Congress in January, security minister Gustavo Villatoro said 61,300 people had been detained for suspected ties to the gangs. Of those, only 3,313 individuals had been released on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Bukele – who boasts a sky-high popularity rating of 87%, according to recent polls – is the mastermind behind the state of emergency and the no-holds-barred approach to eradicating the maras. The self-styled “world’s coolest dictator” leverages his massive Twitter following of 4.6 million to trumpet his successes in stamping out gangs and turning El Salvador into what he has called “the safest country in Latin America”.

HRW’s deputy director for the Americas Juan Pappier says Bukele should be judged by his policies rather than his popularity, and called for international action.

“The situation in the country is so dire that it deserves immediate attention from organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council,” he said. “Governments, especially those in the region, are responsible for speaking out, and there should be consequences for these human rights violations."

Pappier says rhetoric at the highest levels of the government, including from the president, who commands both the national civilian police and the armed forces, has encouraged abuses.

“It is dehumanising rhetoric towards detainees. It creates the impression that those within the police and the military who commit violations will not be investigated and prosecuted,” Pappier said.

Overcrowded prisons

The state of emergency has turned El Salvador into a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to local NGO Fespad, at least 83,000 Salvadorans are behind bars, but the capacity of the prison system is less than 30,000, leading to disastrous and unsustainable overcrowding.

In response, Bukele has just announced the opening of a new mega-prison known as the “Terrorism Containment Centre”, which, he said, “has a capacity for 40,000 terrorists, who will be cut off from the outside world".

Under its emergency measures, the government has denied human rights groups access to prisons.

Cristosal’s Montti said: “Before the state of emergency, we knew there were specific prison blocks for women who were pregnant or had children. With the overcrowding, we fear these spaces may no longer exist. We have also received reports of serious problems, especially with newborns who don’t get any sunlight because they’re locked up for long periods.”

One of the few organisations allowed to visit transgender detainees is LGBTQ rights group Concavitrans. The group’s director Bianka Rodríguez says they have documented 28 cases of LGBTQ people incarcerated during the state of emergency – including Keiry Molina. “It has been very difficult to guarantee access to healthcare for these people, and they have no communication with their families,” said Rodríguez.

Concavitrans, which accuses the police of violating human rights while arresting trans people, has documented abuse, mockery and ill-treatment by police officers in the past year. Two trans women, arrested last April, were exposed on social media, with names that did not align with their gender identity.

Impoverished and marginalised

The maras (which are believed to have originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and spread to Central America after the deportation of Salvadorans a decade later), are claimed to be active in 94% of the country's municipalities.

In neglected and impoverished neighbourhoods, where the Salvadoran government has failed to provide security and safety, the gangs step in and take control of all aspects of life. Historically, women and girls have been targeted by gangs, who abuse them sexually and psychologically. Some women do become members of gangs, but they are rarely found in high-ranking positions.

LGBTQ communities are frequently targeted by gang violence, especially transgender women who are forced into sex work and drug trafficking. Rodríguez from Concavitrans says they are usually coerced into these activities rather than being willing perpetrators.

Now, people living in poor neighbourhoods or who are related to gang members must fear the police, according to human rights groups.

“Some people are unfortunately forced to live with these gang groups, but that does not mean that these people are part of the gangs, or that they are responsible for the… abusive behaviour of the gangs, such as homicides, the recruitment of minors and sexual violence,” Pappier said.

Marginalised individuals, especially people of colour and/or those with tattoos (tattoos are strongly associated with gangs in El Salvador), are also being targeted and accused, even if they have been victims of gang behaviour, said Montti.

Rights groups are also worried about the prevalence of anonymous tips that lead to arrests without further evidence or investigation – which happened with Keiry Molina and is permitted under the state of emergency.

In one such case reported to openDemocracy by Cristosal, 28-year-old Zoila (not her real name) was arrested in the city of San Vicente after an anonymous tipster accused her mother of being a member of the maras. Despite the lack of evidence, Zoila was charged with "unlawful association" and was imprisoned. Her family still does not know where she is.

Many detainees’ families fear repercussions for speaking out about ill-treatment. Maribel (also a pseudonym) from a rural village in Usulután, in the south-east of the country, spoke to openDemocracy about her 26-year-old son Javier, a tractor driver, who was arrested in October by the national civil police and accused of links with the gangs.

After providing evidence that he was not involved with the mara, Javier was released later that month, only to be arrested again on the same charges a few days later – without further evidence, according to Maribel. His family has not been informed of his whereabouts and fears the worst.

Maribel says Javier has no criminal record and is a dedicated worker, supporting his wife and two children. During his first detention, Maribel camped outside the prison for 18 days, seeking information about her son.

She and other relatives of detainees received no answers, only harassment. “They called us the mothers of the maras, and told us that we were defending criminals,” she said, referring to the prison authorities. “But I always shouted at them that my son is not a criminal.”

Maribel, who doesn’t know what has happened to her son, says: “We are not against the president fighting the maras, but we want him to stop imprisoning innocent poor people.”

openDemocracy contacted Ernesto Sanabria, Bukele’s press secretary, for comment but has not received a response.

Dánae Vílchez is a Nicaraguan journalist based in Guatemala. She became openDemocracy's Mesoamerica correspondent in March 2022, after a stint as a fellow in 2021. She is also Central America correspondent with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and has an Erasmus Mundus master’s degree in journalism, media and globalisation, with a specialisation in politics. She was previously a fellow with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Pikara Magazine,, Confidencial and AJ+, among others.

Photo: Presidencia El Salvador / Wikimedia Commons

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