Police in El Salvador have come under fire after the body of an alleged gang member was found beaten and handcuffed despite family being told he died of coronavirus, underscoring the potential consequences of the president authorizing lethal force against the country's street gangs during the pandemic.
Luis Iván Mejía Bonilla was among nine alleged gang members who police arrested April 28 on suspicions that they were involved in a soldier's killing in April 2019. A week later, on May 6, medical personnel at a hospital in La Paz department delivered Mejía’s body to his family members, explaining he had died from coronavirus and that they couldn’t open his casket, according to El Diario de Hoy.
However, Mejía’s family wasn’t convinced. They opened the casket and found his body bruised, his face wrapped in a bloody cloth that oozed near his eyes and ears, his teeth chipped and his hands cuffed, according to his family. Mejía’s neighbors said he was never involved with gangs and doubt he could have participated in the soldier's murder, according to El Diario de Hoy.
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It's not clear what transpired between Mejía's arrest and his death.
Univision quoted La Paz Police Chief Óscar Aguilar saying that Mejía had been evaluated by medical personnel for a fever and body aches the day before he died. The following day, according to Aguilar, Mejía’s fever worsened, and he was vomiting blood. Authorities then transferred him to the Zacatecoluca hospital, but he died before arriving.
As for the victim being handcuffed, Aguilar said police may not have wanted to remove them for “health reasons” due to coronavirus.
Family members have since asked the Attorney General’s Office and the Office for the Defense of Human Rights (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos -- PDDH) to investigate Mejía’s arrest and subsequent death. On May 12, authorities exhumed the body to perform an autopsy and verify the cause of death, according to a report from El Diario de Hoy.
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While Mejía’s case is so far an isolated incident, it raises serious concerns that police and soldiers could use the coronavirus to disguise their own misconduct at a time when they have carte blanche from the president to use deadly force.
Following a spate of murders allegedly ordered by imprisoned gang leaders from the MS13 and the Sureños and Revolucionarios factions of the Barrio 18, President Nayib Bukele authorized on April 26 the use of lethal force by the police and armed forces for "self-defense" against gang members.
Prior to that outbreak of violence, the daily average of murders for 2020 had been at historic lows. Bukele accredited this to his plan to improve security by taking back control of territory dominated by the country’s gangs. The gangs' ability to quickly ratchet up violence, however, suggests otherwise.
Security forces in El Salvador have a long and notorious history of carrying out extrajudicial killings, participating in death squads and tampering with crime scenes to make executions look like confrontations or shootouts.
Human rights groups, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), have already raised concerns about the potential for abuses amid Bukele’s heavy-handed security measures to combat the gangs.
Giving security forces with a documented history of violence the freedom to kill suspected gang members was always going to carry major risks. And Mejía's case is unlikely to be the only example of this.