Human Rights Abuses in Bukele’s El Salvador Demand Sanctions

By Amanda Strayer and Suchita Uppal

In the 19 months since March 27, 2022, when El Salvador’s government declared a state of emergency, there has been a systematic breakdown of the rule of law and the widespread commission of sanctionable human rights abuses in that country. In September, Human Rights First formally recommended the imposition of Global Magnitsky and Section 7031(c) sanctions against four Salvadoran government officials involved in gross human rights violations including mass arbitrary detentions and torture and ill-treatment.

In the name of “gang purge,” authorities have jailed nearly 72,000 people, less than a third of whom are believed to have any ties to gang-related violence. Cases of arbitrary arrests, without warrants or informing detainees of the grounds of their arrest, are well-documented. A new law has lowered the age of criminal responsibility for gang-related crimes from 16 to 12 years, and more than one thousand children have been detained. At least 174 prisoners have died in custody, many reportedly as a result of ill-treatment. Photographs released by the Salvadoran president’s office show hundreds of prisoners chained to one another, touting the inhumane conditions they are forcing detained individuals to face. The Legislative Assembly approved legal reforms to allow for mass trials of up to 900 people simultaneously, though trials have not yet taken place.

While the state of emergency was declared in response to a spike in killings by members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, it has resulted in the suspension of constitutional protections for Salvadorans, including their rights to freedom of association and assembly, privacy, and due process. Last month, the state of emergency was again extended for 30 days, marking the 19th extension of the “exception regime.”

That President Bukele and his administration continue the state of emergency and related abuses underscores the serious democratic backsliding in El Salvador since Bukele took office. Bukele’s recent claims at the U.N. General Assembly that the “debate is over” and “[t]he decisions we took were correct” made clear that his administration has no intention of ending these abuses.

His bid to run in 2024 for an unconstitutional second consecutive term suggests that without significant intervention, the assault on human rights in El Salvador will continue. Government officials indicated that they will continue the emergency and the suspension of constitutional rights until they determine the security risk is “close to zero.” With recent law enforcement reports now claiming that 42,826 of those involved in gangs are yet to be detained, there seems to be no relief in sight from the emergency and its related human rights abuses.

Bukele’s tactics should be a cause for alarm for Salvadorans and beyond their borders. While the brutal crackdown is popular among Salvadorans, local human rights organizations report that the state of emergency provides cover for security forces to target and arrest activists. Other Central and South American leaders, like those in Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, and Honduras, are looking to emulate Bukele’s abusive measures. Targeted sanctions in response to these increasingly authoritarian measures in El Salvador could help deter other countries in the region from implementing similar anti-democratic and human rights-abusing policies.

Sanctions against the actors responsible for atrocities in El Salvador are also important because they would enable the U.S. government to address a gap in its use of Global Magnitsky sanctions. Approximately ten percent of the United States’ Global Magnitsky sanctions have been applied to North and Central American countries. Of these, about one-third focus on human rights abuses rather than corruption. Previous Global Magnitsky sanctions related to El Salvador, for instance, were limited to allegations of corruption, and have not addressed the human rights crisis in the country (see two cases from 2021 and 2022). There is significant potential for increased focus on human rights abuses in the region. Adopting sanctions and visa restrictions against Salvadoran officials is an important step in filling that accountability gap and sending a message of opposition to policies that undermine human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

The United States identifies El Salvador as an important partner in the region and has long cooperated with the Salvadoran military that is central to the perpetration of abuses during the country’s state of emergency. These ties create both a responsibility to take meaningful action and an opportunity to help deliver change, as underscored in Human Rights First’s report, Friends Like These. The U.S. government should use sanctions as leverage to push El Salvador to end these abuses.

With tens of thousands of people arbitrarily detained for more than a year, widespread reports of torture and inhuman treatment, disappearances, and deaths in custody, El Salvador’s supposed “war on gangs” is a blow to human rights there. As U.S. Representative Jim McGovern has said, the tens of thousands of people detained during the state of exception have “no equivalent in Latin America, not even during the worst years of military dictatorship.”

In our formal recommendation calling for Global Magnitsky and Section 7031(c) sanctions, Human Rights First urges the government of the United States to hold to account key officials in El Salvador who continue to openly engage, unchecked, in these serious violations of human rights.





  • Amanda Strayer
  • Suchita Uppal

Published on November 7, 2023


Related Posts

Seeking asylum?

If you do not already have legal representation, cannot afford an attorney, and need help with a claim for asylum or other protection-based form of immigration status, we can help.