LA LIMONERA, El Salvador ( Associated Press) – Esmeralda Dominguez was about 100 yards from home when soldiers and police stopped her on a small bridge. There the officers waited for hours. Dominguez, neighbors said, was the only person they stopped.
Her aunt living nearby protested. Dominguez was not a criminal, she insisted, dispelling the community organizations her niece led or was involved in. It didn’t matter.
“We know what we’re doing,” one soldier said to the aunt before loading the young woman into the truck. Leaving her black motorcycle on the side of the road, she roared.
That was April 19. Since then no one in his family has seen him.
In the past 10 weeks, El Salvador’s security forces have arrested more than 36,000 people since Congress granted President Nayib Bukele the power to suspend some civil liberties for pursuing powerful street gangs. Lawmakers last week extended those powers for another 30 days as opinion polls showed widespread popular support.
However, a growing number of arrests – like that of Dominguez – appear to be arbitrary or unreasonable, human rights groups allege.
Cristosal, a non-governmental organization, has documented more than 500 cases of arbitrary arrests since the exception status went into effect on March 27, according to its director Noah Bullock. Amnesty International said on Thursday that its investigators found that thousands of people had been arrested without meeting legal requirements.
Bukele sought expanded powers after El Salvador street gangs killed dozens in late March. After two weeks of mass detention, the president acknowledged that 1% of those arrested may have been “at fault” who have no ties to the gang. Critics say even the low numbers suggest that authorities are not making arrests based on investigations. His office declined to comment.
Now, under the new powers, officers are not required to show cause to those arrested. Detainees can be held for up to 15 days without seeing a judge and without access to lawyers.
When the arrested people finally find a lawyer, the Public Defender’s office is overwhelmed. Thousands of new cases piled up on top of the current caseloads of just 250 public defenders nationwide.
Dominguez’s family and about 50 others in the area seem to have been among the first to organize in an effort to free their relatives. Families have filed filings with courts known as habeas corpus, which order that anyone in custody be brought before the court and places the burden of proof on the government. Cristosal is helping with many of those cases, including Dominguez’s.
The most common offense for those arrested, including Dominguez, is an illicit affair for allegedly belonging to a gang. According to a report by Cristosal, judges have practically automated in ordering arrests for six months at the request of prosecutors, while there is little or no supporting evidence. Prosecutors say judges have ordered nearly 26,000 people to be jailed.
In April, a police association said that some commanders under pressure to meet arrest quotas were pushing their officers to do anything necessary to arrest them, including making false statements by tying people up with gangs. And last month, three police agents were arrested when they went to collect money they demanded in return for not arresting anyone.
Just hours before Dominguez was taken into custody, Bukele wrote on Twitter — the photos above with shirtless gang members’ faces and blankets covered in tattoos — that authorities had arrested more than 13,000 “terrorists.” Those following the president’s social media feed might not have imagined Dominguez – the mother of two children, including a 4-month-old daughter – would soon be involved in a growing number of arrests.
José Lazo Romero, lawyer for the Brother Mercedes Ruiz Foundation, a Christian social justice organization with which Dominguez worked, said he knew of at least 15 cases similar to his in the region, including playing football at home. Three youths arrested on the way were involved. And a disabled person was snatched away by the authorities.
“It is said that he who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear,” said Lazzo. “Now people who have nothing to hide are afraid of being arrested, afraid of being taken to jail, they are being sent to jail.”
This area is known as the Bajo Lempa, an alluvial plain to the southeast of the capital, where the Lempa River joins the Pacific Ocean. These lowlands flood almost every year when the Lempa overflows and spread to agricultural communities as Dominguez grew up.
During the civil war in the 1980s, many people here have fled the conflict before – in Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador among other parts. After the 1992 peace deal, many sympathizers of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, were resettled here. María Dolores García, Dominguez’s 55-year-old mother and FMLN supporter to date, was one of them.
García Quecera was a childhood survivor of the massacre. In October 1981, El Salvador’s military force, including an elite unit trained by the United States, swept through communities in the area. Several hundred people, many women and children were killed.
“I experienced all the pains of war,” she said: “To be persecuted again today, it’s not easy.”
Advocates say most of those arrested come from poor, marginalized communities. The pain is felt doubly by their families, as those arrested were often the earners.
Dominguez was not the first member of her family to be arrested. Sergio Santos, a farm laborer, her longtime partner and the father of her 4-month-old daughter, were arrested by police on April 9, who came to the family home and asked García how many men and women lived there. He told him to wake up Santos. He said they had a list of names, looked at his ID, said, “That’s you,” and handcuffed him.
Dominguez began making daily rounds to the police, in prison, trying to obtain information. She was well known in the community and worked with officers at the local police station on a youth program to prevent violence. Her mother said that her work did not put her in touch with the gang members.
The day she went to the police, Dominguez tried to deliver food to Santos and found that she had been transferred to a prison in the capital. Then she too left.
There were gangs here years ago. They recruited the children and grandchildren of former guerrilla fighters.
“You had to coexist here with them against your will,” said Ricardo Hernandez, a 68-year-old neighbor of Dominguez and his family. “They asked for water, you had to give them. Whatever they asked for, you had to give them. Food and money too.”
This changed when the government established two police stations in the area several years ago. The gang moved into the mangrove swamps closer to the coast, and the police became – and remain – more visible. Now there are no traces of gang graffiti.
With Congress extending the exception status for another month, further questions have been raised about the reasons for the increase in killings in March.
Last month, investigative news site El Faro published an apparently phone conversation between gang leaders and a member of Bukele’s government. Recordings indicated that the killings – 62 in one day – came in response to the breaking of a secret agreement with the government. Last year, the US Treasury cleared two officers, including one caught on recording, saying that Bukele’s administration had bought gang support with privileges for its imprisoned leaders.
Bukele has previously denied interactions with the gangs, but his only public reaction to the latest evidence influencing his administration has been the laugh-till-cry emoji on Twitter.
Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro requested an extension, saying the government wanted to eliminate the gangs. “This war,” he said, “will continue as long as it is necessary and to the extent that the people continue to demand it.”
On a recent morning, Garcia pulled out a stack of signed letters, stamped from a plastic bag. They all testify to Dominguez’s community activism—from organizations he led or worked for, to organizations that advocated for women, promoted community development, and pushed for chemical-free farming.
At a court hearing on May 2, where dozens of detainees were produced en masse. The judge ordered Dominguez to pre-trial detention for six months. Garcia had given the letters to a public defender, but the judge never saw them.
In the prosecutions that Cristosal has seen, judges face anywhere from 50 to more than 500 inmates at a time. Judges also, generally, are not accepting documents such as the ones Garcia collected speak to the character of those facing charges.
“We would describe the evidence being brought against these individuals as general data, not necessarily any information that links individuals to criminal activity,” said Bullock, director of Cristosal.
In another case, a woman was arrested in 2019 on charges of illegal association, when a gang member mentioned her name in a taped phone conversation, re-arrested in exceptional circumstances was. Cristosal, who is helping him, argues that he was arrested and charged a second time for the same circumstances in the 2019 case. Her family said there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Other stories have surfaced of people who have just completed or nearly completed their prison sentences are being raised again on the same charges. Such arrests show that the government is using lists of people who have had contact with the criminal justice system to take them into custody, even if they are acquitted.
In La Limonera, about 200 yards from the family home, across a clearing, Dominguez farmed a plot to help feed the household. In recent days, neat rows of tomatoes and pineapples were growing weeds.
Garcia says that suddenly finding herself the primary caregiver for two children, including an infant who was breastfed, turned her life upside down. Dominguez and his accomplice are in prison, as is the father of Dominguez’s 12-year-old daughter, who was providing some financial aid.
Garcia has relied on donations to feed the children. He is worried about the plants dying in his daughter’s abandoned garden. “It has affected everyone in the community here because everyone knows him,” Garcia said. “She was the head of the family.”
And what about people like Dominguez? Under the current rules, there is no way of knowing. Bullock said: “There is a very uncertain future for those who are in this black hole of the justice system.”
Sherman reported from Mexico City. In Mexico City, Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.