El Salvador’s new law on gangs raises censorship fears
By Maria Abi-Habib and Bryan Avelar
El Salvador’s Congress passed a law late Tuesday to punish anyone who shares information about gangs with up to 15 years in prison, a move that observers say could lead to the censorship of journalists and more mass detentions.
The change to the penal code comes amid a state of emergency that has allowed security forces to detain civilians, without evidence, under suspicion for being involved in a gang. Security forces have detained about 6,000 people since the state of emergency was approved last week.
Critics say that the new law is so vague that it could be used to charge virtually anyone who speaks generally about the gangs, such as describing their territorial control or sharing gang graffiti, signs or messages in public or private communications.
Paired with the government’s new ability to intercept the correspondence and communications of Salvadoran citizens without a court order — a measure passed under the state of emergency — the change could see thousands more detained.
“Salvadoran journalism has, for years, brought state abuses out of the gloom, and this series of actions indicate they want to silence it,” said Astrid Valencia, Amnesty International’s researcher for Central America.
“There is concern that the recent reform and the vagueness of the terms used may become the last obstacle promoted by Salvadoran authorities to limit the exercise of the right to inform and be informed.”
The measures were put in place after a wave of violence over three days late last month that left at least 87 dead throughout the country. The authorities attributed the killings to MS-13, the largest gang with the greatest territorial control in El Salvador. On March 26, at least 62 people were killed when the gang started shooting anyone found on the street, officials said, as opposed to those involved in gang turf wars.
It was the deadliest day on record in the country since the end of its brutal civil war 30 years ago.
The wave of violence appeared to be a message by MS-13 to the government to renegotiate a deal allegedly forged shortly after Nayib Bukele came to power as president in 2019. The U.S. Treasury Department accused the government of providing financial incentives, prostitutes, mobile phones and other perks to gang leaders in prison in exchange for a reduction in violence and homicides across the country. The department sanctioned top officials in Bukele’s government late last year over the secret pact.
Bukele has denied that his government has a clandestine deal with the gangs.
He had campaigned on a pledge to restore security to El Salvador. He is wildly popular, with an approval rating of about 85%. During his nearly three-year rule, homicides have fallen drastically, making the violence late last month all the more shocking.
The new measure states that any “radio, television, written or digital media” that “reproduce or transmit messages or communications originating from said criminal groups” could be subject to 10 to 15 years in prison.
Rep. Guillermo Gallegos said during the plenary session to discuss the change, “What we are restricting is terrorist groups that may be advertising themselves — through some bad Salvadorans they advertise in the media.”
The Salvadoran Journalists’ Association called the new measures “gag order reforms” that represent “a clear attempt to censor news outlets” covering gangs.
Shortly after the law was passed, Bukele, 40, took to his favored platform, Twitter, to address the measure.
“When the Germans wanted to eradicate Nazism, they prohibited by law all Nazi symbols as well as messages, apologies and everything aimed at promoting Nazism,” Bukele tweeted Tuesday night. “Now we will do that with the gangs.”
Salvadoran news outlets have been closely documenting the thousands who have been arrested since last week, when the state of emergency came into effect. Detention centers in the capital, San Salvador, are so full that detainees are being sent to jails in rural areas.
While the government has claimed that the 6,000 people arrested since last week are all gang members, evidence is emerging that innocent civilians are being rounded up as they walk through their neighborhood, torn away from their children, friends or relatives and piled onto buses before they are driven off to jails across the country. On Tuesday, a journalist watched as a child with autism was detained, his mother crumpling onto the street, wailing with grief.
The news media has faced withering criticism from government officials, including accusations that they are sympathizing with gangs. A local news outlet, El Faro, was the first to break the news of the government’s pact with the gangs, and after that article was published, spyware was downloaded on the phones of most El Faro reporters.
Observers have raised concerns about the independence of El Salvador’s judicial system during the state of emergency. Last week, Bukele took to Twitter to order the investigation of a judge after the judge freed several gang members. Hours later, local news media reported that the judge had been transferred to a remote area in the interior of the country, presumably as punishment.
Under the state of emergency, freedom of assembly has been banned and the right to state-sponsored legal defense upon detention has been suspended. Since the arrests are unfolding in the poorest neighborhoods in the country, the change affects mostly detained residents of those areas.
Bukele has mocked the international community and rights groups that have expressed concern over the arrests.
“If they love the gang members so much, come get them, we’ll give them to them two for one,” the president Tweeted recently.