The United Nations has it eyes set on El Salvador. In a period of a few months, four of its top experts visited the country, returning with largely damning assessments of the human rights impact of the government’s harsh anti-gang policies. But questions remain as to whether Salvadoran officials — who seem set on an “iron fist” approach to the country’s increasingly volatile security situation — will listen to these critiques.

In the most recent of the visits by UN representatives, which ended last week, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, said that El Salvador’s program of “extraordinary measures” for prisons violates human rights, and that the country has been unable to effectively deal with increasing violence at the hands of its security forces.

The measures — which allow for prolonged isolation of prisoners, suspension of hearings and visitations, and blocking of phone signals around prisons — went into force in April 2016 and have been repeatedly extended. Authorities are seeking congressional approval for another renewal, which is likely to pass due to widespread support among the two main political parties.

The program is part of a wider set of heavy-handed security policies that prioritize repressive measures to tackle violent gangs.

The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén claims these measures helped achieve a 21 point reduction in the country’s homicide rate last year. Nevertheless, El Salvador still ranks as one of the most violent on earth, with 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017.

But local civil society organizations and UN experts have expressed reservations about the effect this approach is having on human rights. They said the extraordinary measures in prisons have caused a spike in cases of tuberculosis among inmates, and reported a concerning number of cases of sometimes deadly violence at the hands of security forces.

A day after Callamard left El Salvador, officials from the national prison system said they were implementing some of the experts’ recommendations, including separating gang members according to their “level of dangerousness,” and keeping gang leaders away from other prisoners.

However, both Prisons Director Marco Tulo Lima and Vice President Óscar Ortiz said they did not agree with the proposal to suspend the “extraordinary measures,” and insisted the policies are having a positive impact on the security situation in the Central American country.

After her 12-day visit to the country, Callamard spoke to InSight Crime about her preliminary conclusions, the potential short-term impact of upcoming elections on security programs, and the need to tackle deep-rooted impunity in one of the most violent countries on Earth. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

InSight Crime: The United Nations seems to have its eyes set on El Salvador. Do the visits respond to a deteriorating situation?

Agnes Callamard: El Salvador has been on my radar since I started as a Special Rapporteur [in August 2016] because of the allegations I have received of excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings. It is one of those countries that are battling unconventional violence and using possible excessive force in their responses.

The country had been neglected by the United Nations in terms of its human rights monitoring for some time, and international human rights organizations were not very present, so I thought it would be important for me to go there.

IC: You spent nearly two weeks in El Salvador, in the midst of a deepening security crisis, how would you describe what you saw?

AC: I have found that the violence is endemic and systemic. That violence translates into real fear for people so there is this impression that repressive measures are the only way to respond to this situation.

According to the polls I have read, society in general seems to prefer an “iron fist” strategy even though, so far, that strategy has not delivered any tangible outcome as far as the violence, peace and security are concerned. I found that some of the discourse that I have come across is borderline or full-on incitement to violence.

I don’t think there is enough discussion and space to debate alternative proposals, which I think is unfortunate.

IC: Why do you think this is happening?

AC: There is a hunger for solutions, but a very limited public space to allow for open discussion of the various options and possibilities. People fall back on what I find to be the same old policies predicated on militarization of policing and mass imprisonment.

The political sector and other members of society should be able to talk about the country’s security strategy and all of its dimensions, including in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration, in an open and informed fashion. But I have found these are very difficult topics, particularly in a pre-electoral context. [El Salvador will hold legislative and municipal elections on March 4.]

IC: How would you evaluate the alternative solutions you have come across, and why do you think they don’t fully resolve the problems El Salvador is facing?

AC: I should say that the government has been brave in proposing at least two policies which, in my view, are breaking with the approach we have seen over the last 15 years: “El Salvador Seguro” [“Safe El Salvador”] which on paper has very good measures which are not aiming at repression, and the Yo Cambio [“I Change”] program of rehabilitation for detainees which is also very interesting. I think the government has been committed to exploring alternative solutions in parallel to the repressive measures. I suspect that there is a political understanding that repression alone cannot deliver tangible outcomes for the population as far as security is concerned.

Unfortunately, for a range of reasons which were beyond the scope of my mission, those alternative measures are not well resourced and they are politically costly in that the population does not understand them and appears to be more geared toward “iron fist” responses. So this does not encourage the government to push for and resource these programs well.

IC: Why do you think these programs are not fully resourced?

AC: The political cost can be one of the reasons why these programs are not properly debated or resourced but I haven’t investigated all the reasons for the lack of resourcing.

We need to acknowledge that El Salvador has a small public budget and that difficult decisions need to be made about how to allocate it but I do regret the fact that 80 percent of the special taxes that were put in place to resource El Salvador Seguro, for example, has gone towards the police and the army.

IC: You visited a number of prisons under the regime of “extraordinary measures” — prisons not even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has had access to. And you said they were some of the “worst you had ever seen.” Can you tell us more?

AC: The prisons are pretty hellish. I went to a prison under extraordinary measures, an old one and a newer one that is going through some changes.

In the old prison the overcrowding is very striking. There are so many people there that many have to take turns to sit or sleep. They are not able to go outside for days and weeks, they do not have access to a stall, the diet is poor, some people are very ill and only have access to poor services, and there is a tuberculosis epidemic.

The government is taking measures to tackle some of the tuberculosis, and when I visited the prison I could see some of the measures they were taking. We will have to wait until we get the final number in a month or two to see whether the death rate starts to go down.

The second prison I visited was very different. There was no overcrowding, there were six inmates per cell and the cell had six beds. They were still not able to see the sun much or go outside, and as far as I understand the diet was not great either. But in those new prisons that have been built, the problem of overcrowding has been addressed with the exception of some cells. However, there are more measures that need to be taken with regards to access to the sun, exercise, a stall, a good diet and so on.

I have called on the government to allow the ICRC to access all prisons without any kind of limits. I believe they will be able to provide the government and the prison authorities with a range of recommendations on how to tackle the impact of the extraordinary measures on the inmate’s health and well-being.

IC: The government claims the “extraordinary measures” in prisons are helping tackle violence. How would you respond?

AC: From the short-term standpoint, in my view, the extraordinary measures are inhumane. And from a long-term standpoint, I suspect they are creating far more problems than solutions.

Anyone under the prison conditions that I have seen is unlikely to get out a better person. Frankly, prison should aim at punishing for wrongdoing, but it should also give people the time and tools so they do not fall back into their old ways. The Yo Cambio program, which is being tested in a number of prisons, should be implemented in the prisons under extraordinary measures. Inmates told me they are very keen to be involved in Yo Cambio and to learn new skills.

IC: The government says it needs to take back control of the prisons from gangs. Do you agree?

AC: I have told the government repeatedly that I do not oppose the extraordinary measures that have a good security rational, including to controlling the prisons.

I have not said anything about the need to control communications, for instance, because I understand the need on the part of the police to do so. I do question, however, the way in which those objectives are being implemented.

Controlling the prison is a necessity but I think that some of the measures have no security proposes, but rather are aimed at dehumanizing the inmates, and that’s where I draw the line.

IC: Some people argue that the measures that dehumanize prisoners actually fuel criminal organizations, making them stronger. Is this criticism valid?

AC: I don’t know, I’m not an expert on that. I have not investigated the impact of the dehumanization efforts. I cannot comment on that.

IC: One of the issues that has generated a lot of attention lately, and prompted your visit, is the allegations of extrajudicial killings. Have you found a state policy towards this?

AC: I’m not suggesting that. What I’m saying is that there is a pattern of behavior amounting to extrajudicial killings or excessive use of force, and this pattern is reinforced or fed by the weak institutional responses, particularly at the investigative and judicial level.

IC: You said that impunity fuels some of these allegations of abuse. Can you explain?

AC: I think it’s important to recognize that there is a high rate of impunity regarding allegations of police and army killings, but there is a high rate of impunity across the board in the country.

So this is not dissimilar to the rate of killings you find, for example, for killings of women or for the killing of LGBTQI persons and for a range of other crimes. This is why I’m suggesting that the weak institutions — both in terms of investigations and the justice system — are feeding the behaviors I have identified.

IC: How do you go about tackling the lack of a strong judiciary in a country that has faced endemic impunity for decades?

AC: First of all, I would focus on the allegations of violence by the police and the army. I think this kind of violence presents specific challenges and characteristics.

Of course there need to be very strong mechanisms to prevent violence from being used in the first place. This includes tackling the lack of resources for the protection of police officers, the fact that for example they don’t have protective vests, some of the moral issues I have seen, the need for better training on techniques for confrontations with gangs, and so on.

However, of course, tackling impunity is going to be key. The authorities need to really begin by ensuring that at least some of the cases that have been publicly reported have a proper review by judges.

IC: Can you pinpoint where the main obstacles for justice are?

AC: There have been a number of instances where police officers have gone to the sentencing stage but judges have shied away from sentencing them. So at some level, investigations have delivered, at least in 50 percent of the cases that have gone through the investigative judges, there have been missed opportunities as well as missed opportunities at the sentencing level.

It’s not as if there haven’t been cases going to court. But in my view, there is an impunity bottleneck beginning at the entry point, at the first investigation. From a systemic standpoint, authorities really need to understand this bottleneck and they need to address it. But in the meantime, they should be able to process at least one case seriously to demonstrate that this kind of abuse of power will not be tolerated, and continue to progress form there. 

IC: That will take a long-term commitment from the authorities and the country as a whole. Do you think it’s possible?

AC: There is no quick fix for this problem. If we insist on a quick fix we are going to fall into the same pattern that we have seen with the response to the violence. It needs to be addressed systematically, with solutions geared towards the institutions themselves. Whether or not there needs to be special judges appointed for the kind of allegations related to the police or to the army, that is something that could be explored.

I believe that the resources to investigate the military and the police should be increased. And of course these are difficult decisions, not very popular to explain. But in my view, whenever the state institutions in charge of security or some of their members act in a rough fashion, this is a very dangerous path for a country.

IC: What other recommendations are you looking to put forward to the authorities?

AC: I don’t have all my recommendations yet. The final report will be done in a month or so, at which stage I hope to have more detailed recommendations in terms of how the judicial and investigative institutions should respond to the impunity. But ultimately it is about providing good evidence, having judges that are not afraid of indicting police officers, protecting these judges from very unpopular decisions and ensuring that internally within those institutions there are mechanisms that allow the gathering of the required evidence to demonstrate extrajudicial executions or excessive use of force.

IC: Do you think that there is the will and environment that will allow at least some of these changes to take place in El Salvador?

AC: I think we will have to wait for the post-election period. At the moment, all political actors are focusing on the elections. The political will is hard for me to assess. During my mission, I saw a range of measures to address some aspects of the extraordinary measures. I was shown a number of initiatives that seek to provide rehabilitation and reintegration, particularly in the prisons. Whether of not this was done for my visit, rather than a more committed response to the abuses that have taken place as part of the official response … that I cannot tell.

The management of the expectations of society will be very crucial but the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. I hope that in El Salvador, people will move away from going mad because repeating the same iron fist policy will not deliver a different outcome than it has over the last ten years.

IC: You talked about ensuring justice on one case and learning from it as a path to a solution. How would that work?

AC: We are only one step, one good decision away from breaking the cycle of impunity. It’s clearly not enough to solve one case, but it is at least enough to break this cycle and to send a signal that killings by security personnel are not acceptable. Clearly one case is not enough, but it is where we start.

IC: Do you think the current environment in El Salvador will allow for this cycle of impunity to be broken and some of these issues tackled?

AC: I think there is hope. The transition process after the civil war has taken a long time but right now there are signs that things are moving. I hope we will not have to wait another 30 years for some justice.

I think there are good people of good will. Civil society and the legal community are really trying to build strong cases, they need the support of people including from the international community to really build those cases in a way that it makes them bulletproof in the judicial system. There are judges committed to upholding the rule of law. They also have a role to play and they need to be encouraged to do that.

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