MEXICO CITY (AP) — The day he was arrested, Luis was in a government office trying to get a document attesting to his clean criminal history so he could apply for a call center job.
“What I wanted at that time was something better for my life,” said the 23-year-old, who was working as a baker.
When his turn came, he was told an agent from the National Civil Police would be involved because there was an offense on his record, an allegation that he had been associated with gang members. Luis was floored. Denying it repeatedly was useless, he recalled, because “at that time people didn’t have rights.”
That was April 2022, the month after El Salvador President Nayib Bukele received special powers suspending fundamental rights like access to a lawyer or being informed of why you were arrested. Bukele launched a full-scale war against the country’s powerful street gangs. The exceptional powers remain in effect more than 1 ½ years and some 72,000 arrests later.
Accused of illegal association without any publicly known evidence, Luis was arrested that day and in less than 24 hours taken to El Salvador’s largest prison, La Esperanza, also known as Mariona.
During the 11 months he spent incarcerated, Luis often feared he would die.
Luis, who asked that only his first name be used to avoid reprisals, is among the some 7,000 prisoners who Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro said in August had been freed, though most merely were released from pre-trial detention and their cases remain open.
When Luis arrived at Mariona with other detainees, barefoot and wearing only boxers, a double column of club-wielding guards awaited. He says the guards beat the inmates when they entered a room to have their heads shaved, and beat them again on the way out.
In the cell, Luis collapsed and stayed there until another guy came over and asked if he was alive. “I hadn’t noticed that on the floor there was a puddle of blood that was my own blood that had spilled from all of the injuries I had on my back and head,” he said.
It’s still difficult to think about the abuse, he said, but at least he survived prison, unlike many others who were arrested under the special powers.
Human rights organization Cristosal tallied 153 incarceration deaths during the first year of the state of emergency. No victim had yet been convicted, the group said.
“There are registries in the Forensic Medicine Institute that establish the cause of death as strangulation, hanging, blows to the stomach, to the head,” said Zaira Navas, legal chief for Cristosal. “Meaning they’re violent deaths.”
In mid-June, the Attorney General’s Office said it had shelved 142 inmate death cases that could not be blamed on guards. El Salvador’s Justice and Public Security Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the treatment of prisoners and prisoner deaths in their facilities.
During a virtual hearing in July with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, El Salvador’s Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights and Freedom of Expression Andrés Guzmán denied torture or violations of freedom of expression. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado said his office has not received any complaints of torture or degrading treatment against citizens.
Navas, who previously was the National Civil Police inspector general, said there should be accountability in the inmate deaths. “When the state decides to make massive arrests without prior investigation, without going to an independent and impartial judge and (instead) ordering detention measures in a generalized way, it assumes the responsibility for all of the people it has arrested,” Navas said.
Pedro was arrested in July 2022 and held at Mariona too. From his cell he saw repeatedly how guards would grab prisoners and beat them. He still remembers their screams.
“They jumped on them like they were springs, three guards jumped on them” to the point they lost consciousness, said the 39-year-old man. Other prisoners later told him some of the inmates had been killed by the guards. Pedro also requested that only his first name be used to describe what he witnessed in prison.
Last month, the government allowed AP to tour its new mega-prison built at the start of the state of emergency and now holding some 12,000 alleged or convicted gang members, barely a fourth of its 40,000 capacity. Journalists were allowed to speak to only one pre-selected prisoner.
The still-gleaming new prison was a far cry from the dank, overcrowded Mariona lock-up where Pedro suddenly found himself. He had only been in El Salvador for days, having returned to renew his passport. He was arrested while he was out buying pastries.
Pedro had fled El Salvador years earlier when a gang tried to kill him. In Mexico he received a humanitarian visa and, when his daughter was born there, permanent residency.
Police confiscated his Mexican residency card and still have not returned it.
Like Luis, Pedro was accused of illegal association without the evidence shown to him. He was jailed for seven months. Both men said they were never involved in gangs.
Both men said inmates at the prison were constantly hungry. Guards and privileged inmates took coveted items like sugar and antibiotic ointment from the packages delivered by inmates’ families.
They described being packed into cells with as many as 300 other prisoners, including gang members, forced to share two toilets. A receptacle held stagnant, rancid-smelling water used for both flushing the toilets and drinking, Pedro said.
“I got so many illnesses, fungus, rashes on my body, rotting, scabies, boils on my head – terrible bumps leaking blood,” Pedro said.
Luis, already hypertensive since before his arrest, believes his incarceration led to the diabetes he was diagnosed with while in the prison.
Luis and Pedro, like most of the 7,000 people the government says it had released through August, have been granted alternatives to pre-trial detention, but both still have to sign in at the courthouse.
Pedro, who says he came out of prison “psychologically destroyed,” went 15 days without being able to sleep and didn’t leave home.
Bukele is running for a second five-year term — despite a constitutional ban on reelection — largely on the results of his gang crackdown, which has been highly popular in El Salvador. The crackdown has brought new life to the public spaces of communities that once cowered in fear of gang violence.
For Pedro, the crackdown has meant not only losing his job as a gardener in Monterrey, Mexico, but the loss of his Mexican documents. El Salvador won’t let him return to Mexico.
“I feel desperate because they have violated my immigration rights. I feel frustrated because I can’t leave,” Pedro said. He’s working as an informal vendor as he tries to pay back debts his family took on after his arrest.
Luis was given his old job back at the bakery, but he knows his future prospects have been narrowed.
He used to love playing soccer, but now won’t risk it. “I weigh my freedom against going to the soccer field and knowing that some problem always happens at the field and they could arrest me again,” he said.
“So I prefer to be at home,” he said. “I don’t want to suffer what I’ve been through again.”
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