Prison deaths mount in El Salvador’s gang crackdown

Men wearing white shirts and pants, some handcuffed, look out from behind blue latticed bars
Men seized under El Salvador’s “state of exception” are transported to a detention center in a cargo truck in Soyapango on Oct. 7, 2022.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Jesús Joya says his brother was “special” — at 45, he was childlike, eager to please. He was as far from a gang member as anyone could be. And yet the last time he saw Henry, he was boarding a bus to prison.

“Henry, you’re going to get out!” Joya shouted. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

From his seat, Henry Joya responded with a small wave. A police officer smacked him in the head.

Three weeks before, on March 26, El Salvador’s street gangs had killed 62 people across the country, igniting a nationwide furor. President Nayib Bukele and his allies in congress launched a war against the gangs and suspended constitutional rights.


Nearly seven months later, this “state of exception” is still widely popular. But gangsters are not the only ones caught up in a dragnet that has been haphazard, with fatal consequences.

The arrests of more than 55,000 people have swamped an already overwhelmed criminal justice system.

Defendants arrested on the thinnest of suspicions are dying in prison before any authority looks closely at their cases. At least 80 people arrested under the state of exception have succumbed without being convicted of anything, according to a network of nongovernmental organizations trying to track them. The government has provided no figures.

Life in the prisons is brutal; the Bukele administration turned down AP requests to visit them. Defendants disappear into the system, leaving families to track them down. A month after Henry Joya’s arrest, guards at the Mariona prison north of San Salvador told his brother that he was no longer there. That’s all they would say.

A local newspaper photographer had captured the image of Henry Joya, already dressed in prison whites, spotting his brother in the crowd as he was taken away. For more than two months, Jesús Joya carried a clipping of that photo to every prison in El Salvador and then to every hospital.

Have you seen this man, he asked. Have you seen my brother?

When police and soldiers fanned out across El Salvador to make their arrests this year, Bukele tweeted the daily number of “terrorists” detained and talked tough about making their lives miserable.


Police and soldiers encircled neighborhoods or towns, set up checkpoints and searched door to door. They grabbed people standing in the street, commuting to work, at their jobs, in their homes. Sometimes it was a tattoo that got their attention or a picture in someone’s cellphone. Sometimes, they carried lists of names, people who had prior records or brushes with the law. They encouraged anonymous tipsters to drop a dime on gang members or their collaborators.

Some police commanders imposed arrest quotas and encouraged officers to massage details.

It quickly became apparent that the president’s plan did not extend beyond making mass arrests.

Lawmakers bought time by suspending arrestees’ access to lawyers, extending from three days to 15 days the period someone could be held without charges and lifting the cap for how long someone could be held before trial. Judges almost automatically sent those arrested to prison for six months while prosecutors tried to build cases.

Judges are under tremendous pressure to go along with the president’s goals to protect their jobs, said Sidney Blanco Reyes, a judge forced to retire after a legislative reform established an age cap last year. “It’s as though the fate of those locked up depends on what the president says.”

By the government’s account, El Salvador’s prisons were already overcrowded before the war against the gangs. The president quickly announced the construction of a new mega-prison, but it remains unfinished. Seven months later, El Salvador’s incarcerated population has more than doubled.

Generally, the deaths stem from unattended injuries sustained in beatings during arrest, chronic illnesses for which prisoners do not receive treatment, aggression from other inmates or deplorable sanitary conditions, said Zaira Navas, a lawyer with the nongovernmental organization Cristosal.

“There is interest in hiding these deaths,” said Navas, and so they are blamed on natural causes.

Guillermo Gallegos, a vice president in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, acknowledges mistakes have been made and said it is a “tragedy” when they occur. But he sees no reason to lift the state of exception anytime soon.

He attributed the prison deaths to rivalries between jailed gang members. He raised doubts about claims of arbitrary detentions. It is very hard, he said, for a mother to admit her son was a gang member or collaborated with them.

Gallegos said he expected the state of exception will continue for another six months — long enough, he said, to lock up all the 30,000 gang members he believes remain at large.

They should be kept behind bars for as long as possible, said Gallegos, who is also a proponent of the death penalty. “They can’t be rehabilitated, there’s no reinsertion.”

Henry Joya lived in a single room in Luz, a San Salvador neighborhood notorious for its gangs. The two brothers had been there for about 35 years, and Henry Joya was a well-known figure, polite and friendly. Neighbors would give him small sums for taking out their trash and cleaning their yards.

Jesús Joya paid $50 a month for his brother’s room in a modest boardinghouse on a narrow alley where he said he made sure there were no gang members.

Two days before Henry Joya’s arrest, his brother had talked to him about the state of exception and warned him to stay inside. “Be really careful, go to bed early,” Joya told his brother. Henry Joya said he would only go to work.

A neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of attracting police attention, said he heard three loud knocks on the door to Henry Joya’s building the night of April 19. On the fourth, someone shouted, “Police!”

The neighbor glimpsed police and soldiers. Henry Joya did not put up any resistance and the neighbor heard him say nothing as he was led away.

By the time Joya ran up the hill from his house, the police and Henry Joya were gone.

Joya’s search for his brother ended in September. He forced himself to go to the morgue and give the clerks his brother’s name: Henry Eleazar Joya Jovel.

They found that a Henry Cuellar Jovel had died in the Mariona prison on May 25, barely a month after Henry Joya had waved from the bus. The government had buried this man in a common grave on July 8.

Jesús asked to see photographs of the body, and his worst fears were confirmed.

The official cause of death? Pulmonary edema.

Joya worked to correct his brother’s name, which he believes was misrendered by authorities to obscure his death. He convinced the government to exhume the body so that his brother could be buried in the town where their grandparents lived, but first he brought the casket back to his neighborhood, so all of Henry Joya’s friends could say goodbye.

The prison “had my phone number,” he said. “They never told me: ‘Look, your brother is sick; look, this happened to your brother.’”

“He was in good health,” he said. “The only thing wrong was his head.”