El Salvador’s disproportionate measures to curb COVID-19 affect fundamental freedoms

On 15th April 2020, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele openly vowed to defy a ruling by the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber that found no legal basis for state of emergency decrees ordering the arrest of those accused of failing to comply with curfew orders imposed as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of people in El Salvador have been detained and sent to “containment centres” since the country began to enforce a mandatory quarantine at the end of March 2020.

Local and international human rights organisations have called El Salvador’s measures “draconian”, saying they are disproportionate. Amnesty International reviewed documents confirming that some people were detained solely for leaving their houses to buy food or medicine, in a wave of arbitrary detentions. Human rights advocates have also highlighted the unsanitary conditions of containment facilities and the penitentiary system which endanger people deprived of freedom. In addition, a security crackdown in response to a rise in violence in April 2020 led to Bukele authorising law enforcement officers to use lethal force “in self-defence or in defence of the lives of Salvadorans” – a policy that could encourage excessive use of force and extrajudicial executions by police forces.


Two human rights defenders, Ana Cristina Barahona and Sara Yamileth Benítez, were detained arbitrarily under the pretence of COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders - IM-Defensoras). Benítez, a labour rights defender, was detained on 11th March 2020 while out to shop for essential items. Barahona, a women’s and sexual workers’ rights defender, was detained on 13th April 2020 when going out to purchase medication for her 3-year-old son. In both cases, the defenders were reportedly told they were being taken in for a quick coronavirus test and were subsequently held at containment facilities for mandatory quarantine. According to IM-Defensoras, both defenders tested negative for COVID-19 but were held in mandatory quarantine for longer than the stipulated 30 days. They were both released on 20th May 2020.

On a related note, as reported by El Salvador’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH, from the Spanish acronym) there were hundreds of complaints of arbitrary detentions and other rights violations from 21st March to 13th May 2020. In this period the institution received 549 complaints of detentions due to alleged non-compliance with quarantine measures. PDDH also registered 209 complaints for labour rights violations and 177 related to information access.

18-year-old human rights defender and student Gabriela Alejandra Galdámez Martínez was kidnapped and physically assaulted. She was reported missing on 10th May 2020 by family members, who said she had disappeared while out to buy food in the town of Usulután. On 13th May 2020, Gabriela was found unconscious with signs of physical assault. The defender is a member of feminist collective Red Salvadoreña de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos, which condemned the attack on the young woman and urged relevant institutions to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. No official information has been released to date on whether this attack could be related to the defender’s work.


On 13th May 2020, journalists’ association Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (APES) stated that they had received 41 complaints of attacks against journalists in the context of the pandemic. Since January 2020, the organisation has registered 61 such cases. These incidents include cases of journalists being obstructed from carrying out their work, stigmatising comments from public officials and lack of access to information. On 12th May 2020, for example, police officers reportedly obstructed the work of a journalist and a photojournalist with El Diario de Hoy who were covering the exhumation of a body in the La Paz department. APES urged law enforcement agencies to respect freedom of the press, in particular during the public health emergency when information is crucial to the public.

On 14th May 2020, independent journalist Cecibel Romero was blocked by the official Twitter account of the president’s press secretariat. APES has argued that government institutions in El Salvador use social media to provide public interest information, and that blocking journalists from viewing these accounts negatively affects journalistic practice and infringes on the right of access to information.

Journalists, civil society and media organisations have expressed concern that limits to freedom of expression and the press imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic could be maintained further, and that stigmatising comments by public officials could embolden physical attacks on reporters. As APES president Angélica Cárcamo told the Knight Centre:

"We are concerned that the repression of the press, the abuse of power by the public security forces increases, that the digital attacks on journalists could move to the physical plane, and that the state apparatus is used to harass the independent press, and that they even could threaten to close down some critical media or apply espionage measures to these types of independent journalists.”