The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

El Salvador declares ‘state of emergency’ as homicides soar. Rights groups sound alarms.

A police officer patrols La Libertad square in San Salvador on March 29 after El Salvador's Congress declared a state of emergency Sunday that temporarily suspended some constitutional protections after the Central American country recorded a sharp rise in killings attributed to criminal gangs. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)
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El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved a state of emergency Sunday that was requested by President Nayib Bukele in response to a spike in homicides allegedly committed by gangs, a move that worries human rights groups who see the measure as an opportunity for Bukele’s government to trample individual liberties.

The state of emergency declaration comes as the Central American country registered a strong uptick in homicides: 14 on Friday and 62 on Saturday, the latter one of the highest in recent years.

The state of emergency, which was approved for 30 days, suspends four basic individual rights enshrined in the country’s Constitution: freedom of assembly; the right to a state-sponsored legal defense upon detention; the inviolability of correspondence and communications, as authorities will be able to intercept communications without a court order; and the period of administrative detention, which is now extended beyond 72 hours.

Article 29 of the country’s Constitution establishes that the state of emergency can be declared in “cases of war, invasion of territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic and other general calamities, or severe disturbances of the public order,” and it can be extended past 30 days.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern over the spike in violence in the country and said he “trusts that the measures that will be adopted in response will be in line with international human rights law and standards,” according to a news release.

Human Rights Watch said in a news release published Tuesday that the “broad” state of emergency declaration opens the door to abuse by the government.

“The government should address gang violence in El Salvador, but it should do it in a rights-respecting way. And instead of protecting the people through the state of emergency, which is extremely broad, they’re just putting their rights at risk and we see the consequences with these roundups,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

The Salvadoran president tweeted Wednesday that “2,163 gang members had been detained in 4 days.” Police raids and detentions have intensified since the approval of the state of emergency Sunday, according to El Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica. Bukele and his supporters have rejected criticism from international organizations.

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Late Saturday, Bukele asked the Legislative Assembly on Twitter to approve a state of emergency. The assembly met during an extraordinary session at 11 p.m. that night. The state of emergency was approved with 67 votes out of a total of 84.

Bukele has a majority in the Legislative Assembly and has recently removed the country’s attorney general from office along with five Supreme Court judges, which caused concern among U.S. officials. “El Salvador has virtually no independent institutions left as a check on executive power,” Human Rights Watch said in its release.