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  • Writer's pictureOvith Thiyagalingam

El Salvador: Mass Arbitrary Detentions and Violations of Prisoners’ Rights

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

This article discusses themes of state oppression and mass arbitrary detention and may be triggering for some readers.

“On the pretext of punishing gangs, the Salvadoran authorities are committing widespread and flagrant violations of human rights and criminalizing people living in poverty.”

– Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

State of Emergency in El Salvador

In March 2022, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador announced the approval of a 30-day state of emergency in response to a recent surge in gang-related homicides. The state of emergency has since then been extended 12 times, leading to both mass human rights abuses executed by State forces against civilians and the suspension of constitutional civil liberties during the past one year.

States hold a duty to tackle gang-related violence and protect the safety and security of civilians. However, States must do so while complying with international human rights law, thus preventing the further worsening of existing harm caused to vulnerable populations. In the last year, from March 2022 to March 2023, at least 66,000 people have been held in detention by El Salvador authorities.

Many of these detainees are arbitrarily held in custody, wrongfully justified by poorly evidenced investigations, appearance-based profiling, and the social background of the people detained. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization in the United States promoting human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice, over 90% of the detainees in El Salvador were held for prolonged periods of time under provisional detention and without having their case presented before a judge.

El Salvador currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world and has far exceeded the country’s 30,000 prison capacity which existed prior to the state of emergency being implemented. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that nearly 8,000 allegations of human rights abuses against prisoners have been collected.

Captured civilians are often held in overcrowded detention spaces, with some of the allegations of serious violations of prisoners’ rights including: the refusal to provide medication to those with chronic illnesses, physical and psychological abuse, denial of a fair trial, the confinement of minors, and the arbitrary use of solitary confinement.

In addition, over 100 detainees have allegedly died in State custody since the enactment of the state of emergency.

Gang-related violence is a significant human rights issue and El Salvador authorities are justified in their urgency to establish a solution. Gang-related violence significantly disrupts and causes harm to the lives of the individuals and communities impacted. However, the enforcement of federal and security policies that restrict the constitutional freedoms of civilians and impose punitive punishments do not address the root causes of gang-related violence. Instead, punitive security policies often lead to human rights violations.

El Salvador authorities are violating civilians’ right to life, the prohibition against torture, and the international principles of fair trial, which always apply including during states of emergency.

Sustainable solutions to address gang-related violence and crime will require tackling the root causes of violence, which includes social inequalities, marginalization, and the lack of good governance.

Canada's Diplomatic Relationship With El Salvador

Having established diplomatic relations in 1961, Canada and El Salvador have a long-standing relationship of working together for peacebuilding and to eradicate crime.

Canada’s Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program has over $45 million committed to regional and bilateral initiatives fighting transnational crime, including in El Salvador, and $4 million committed directly to El Salvador.

The federal government has not yet publicly announced whether they will be taking any action to hold El Salvador authorities accountable for the ongoing human rights abuses and violations of prisoners’ rights. Federal employees and policymakers can help to put pressure on the Government of Canada to respond to the issue and take the appropriate action needed by raising awareness of the human rights issue with colleagues and senior management.

As an international human rights leader, Canada must uphold its deep commitment to protecting the human rights of all people globally.

Student Action

Students and youth are powerful agents for change. Here are a few ways students and youth in Canada can help address the human rights abuses taking place in El Salvador:

  • Explore in-person and online opportunities to share what you learn with others to help spread the word and instigate action. You can learn and share knowledge through community forums, teach-ins, peer-to-peer programs, and social media.

  • Create a public awareness campaign. Some strategies include developing signs, posters, videos, social media posts, live speeches, online blogs, and petitions to spread awareness and incite quick and effective action.

  • Write a persuasive letter to your MPP with a clear statement expressing what action need to be taken and the necessity for them to apply pressure upwards to incite action from senior-level decision-makers in government.

Email/Letter Template


My name is [*insert your name here*] and I am a resident of [*insert city/riding here*].

I am writing to you today as a concerned citizen of [*insert the name of your province/territory*] on the urgent topic of State-enforced mass detentions and ongoing human rights violations in El Salvador.

[*Briefly talk about what this issue means to you and what its consequences could be in your province or territory and Canada. Why are you concerned about this topic?*]

I urge you to [*insert action here – what can the MPP do about it?*]

Therefore, I once again ask that you [*repeat ask here*].

Thank you for your consideration,

[Insert your name here]

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