The following is an account of how one journalist accidentally witnessed police beating suspected gang members in El Salvador. The episode raises troubling questions about police brutality in a country suffering from soaring homicide rates.
In the holding cell of a police station in downtown San Salvador there are around 30 suspects, the majority of whom are shirtless. They are mostly young, skinny men. Sitting on the ground, most have their hands on their heads, which are placed between their knees. No one complains, and no one is being hit. Not yet, at least.
This group of suspects were captured before noon as part of a search for the person who killed a police officer on June 29. The police search took place in the community of Las Palmas, located in the San Esteban neighborhood -- where the homicide occurred -- in San Salvador's Downtown Historic District. In this area, El Salvador's two principal street gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18, fight each other block for block for control over extortion operations.
So far in 2015, 30 police officers have been assassinated in El Salvador. In the streets, something akin to a war has erupted, with each police officer that is killed fueling the fire. In March, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren admitted the National Civil Police (PNC) had killed more than 140 suspects during shootouts in just one month. He was practically bragging about it.
It is almost three o'clock in the afternoon. On the radio, a police chase crackles over the radio. Some officers are chasing a group in the outskirts of Tinetti market, a zone dominated by the Barrio 18 faction known as the "Revolucionarios." The voices on the radio speak of a warehouse. Eventually, the police ask one of their colleagues to come down off a roof, they've caught the two remaining suspects.
On the radio in the police station downtown, three voices repeat: “Kill them.”
The voice of a female officer is insistent: “Kill them. Kill those sons of bitches.”
The voice of a male officer repeats several times: “Let's be smart.”
The voice of another male officer ends this first exchange of opinions: “Kill those sons of bitches. No more of them fit here. There is no more room here, kill them.”
20 minutes pass by.
Inside the police station, everyone -- except a deputy inspector and a public security officer -- wears a black ski mask.
In the streets, something similar to a war has erupted, with each police officer that is killed fueling the fire.
Two pickup trucks appear. And -- in a classic scene that could happen in any part of the country -- agents from 911 and the Special Operations Group (GOPES) escort young gang members -- some with tattooed gang signs -- who are handcuffed and bleeding from the face. This scene is frequently seen on television. The cameras of the journalists waiting outside are filming.
Adalberto Mendez Vasquez, 29 years old, captured on April 15, 2015, accused of killing a PNC officer. Photo: Fred Ramos
June 29, 2015 was a day of strong emotions in the downtown police station. In the morning, an armed group attacked a police car repair shop. In the confrontation, the attackers -- most likely gang members -- killed a police officer. Chases in different gang neighborhoods throughout the country ensued. There were helicopters, soldiers in the streets, and police officers with ski masks everywhere. Pickup trucks were filled with suspects -- almost all of whom were less than 30 years old -- and taken to police stations as part of the investigation process. Most went to the downtown station. Once inside, they were kicked and suffocated. On that day, three police officers were killed. When I went inside the station that day, two of the officers that later died were still alive. But anger had already taken hold.
The majority of the officers inside the station had no idea I was a journalist. Several reporters were on the sidewalk across from the station, waiting for the police to present the suspects allegedly involved in the killing of the officer at the repair shop. I was there for a different reason: during the raid, the police had captured six of my sources just as they were arriving for an interview. I had agreed to meet 14 individuals from a different part of the country near Las Palmas.
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When I went inside the station that day, two of the officers that later died were still alive. But anger was already the dominant emotion.
One of the vehicles police officials believe was used by the gunmen was found abandoned close to Las Palmas. The police then conducted an operation in the neighborhood, which is not only a stronghold of the Revolucionarios but also of one of the Barrio 18's national leaders. Known as “El Muerto de Las Palmas,” he is currently serving time in a maximum-security prison.
When two police motorcycles saw a group of individuals get off a bus close to Las Palmas, they decided to intervene. They arrested the six young men -- one of whom was a minor -- and left alone the women and the elderly. The six were arrested across from the house where we had planned to meet. Police were operating under the following motto: grab anyone who looks like a gang member -- fill up the pickup trucks.
I followed the suspects to the downtown station, where I got the officers to let me enter the building. I sat in the reception room, waiting until a senior official left a meeting and I could explain the situation. The reception area is next to the holding cell -- where the dozens of youths sat with their arms behind their backs -- which is visible through a large window in the waiting room. The reception area also has a central radio, enabling me to hear what the police on patrol were saying. The suspects kept arriving. I was in that room from 3:00pm until 4:42 in the afternoon.
In single file, moved along by kicks from police officials, the suspects entered the station.
There are no longer any cameras filming inside the station.
All the suspects fall down as they pass through the reception area. They are tired, most likely due to their attempts at escaping, and they spit mouthfuls of saliva and blood. They fall because they are handcuffed behind their backs and are being pushed by the police, who then kick them to get them up off the ground. One of the suspects, a brown-skinned, skinny youth who doesn't look older than 17, cries out and receives a kick in the face.
The sixth in line -- who is more hefty and appears to be over 20 years old -- falls in front of the desk where, under normal circumstances, the police receive citizen complaints. Two officers with ski masks, one from GOPES and the other from 911, circle him and kick him in the chest with their boots. They kick him with the strength a goalie kicks a soccer ball to clear it from the penalty area. There is an echo as if someone was knocking hard on a wall. The suspect turns his face away and spits out blood and saliva, more than the first time. One of the officers kicks him twice more in the ribs and face.
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The last kick lands before the suspect gets up. The instep of the boot reaches his throat and the tip hits his chin. He spits out more blood. He is choking. He makes the hoarse noise one makes after staying under water for as long as possible. They throw him into the holding cell. He falls, head-first, against the wall. An officer places his head between his knees, putting him in the same position as the other suspects.
“People die here!” an officer shouts.
Some 20 officers, men and women, observe the scene. Some eat fruit. Nobody says anything.
At that point, none of the men had been arrested. Minutes later, an officer explains to a family member outside the station that the men are being “detained.” He explains there are no charges against them and that they are under investigation. If they clear a background check, “they will be freed this same night.” It appears many of the suspects are not even gang members, just youths that appeared to be gangsters to the officers who arrested them.
At 8:30pm on June 29, hours after the kickings, a mid-ranking police official confirmed to me that of the “over 40 suspects” that were taken to the downtown station, there were now only “about 10 left." The others had been "freed without charges.”
On June 30, La Prensa Grafica published an article in its judicial section titled: “Prosecutor Criticizes the PNC for Making 'Captures Just to Capture.'" In the article, El Salvador's Attorney General, Luis Martinez, states that in many cases the captures are not substantiated, saying, “we in the prosecutor's office let them go free, because we will not submit anyone to an unfair legal proceeding.”
During the end of June, following the killing of two soldiers that were stationed at a public transportation terminal close to downtown San Salvador, the police captured 53 people they linked to the crime. Seventy-two hours later, all of the suspects were freed without any charges filed against them.
In the holding cell, four more suspects have arrived. One is a gang member with face tattoos, but it is impossible to distinguish between the different tattoos due to the blood flowing from his nose and forehead. The other three are minors, none of whom are bleeding or handcuffed. One is a 15-year old girl, and the others are a 15 and 13-year old boy. They join the rows of those arrested that morning.
Those who were arrested before noon are seated next to the holding cell with their head between their knees. Closer to the gate, the suspects who were arrested at the Tinetti market are rolling on the floor in handcuffs. No police officer has asked any of the suspects a single question. At the moment, this is not an interrogation, just blows from the officers and insults.
The suspect spits out more blood. He is choking. He makes the hoarse noise one makes after staying under water for as long as possible.
One of those handcuffed -- the one who had been kicked in the reception room -- cries and, lying face down, yells for help.
“Help me, sir, help me! I am dying. Throw a little water on my face. I'll die!”
One of the other suspects tells him: “Calm down, breathe, try to breathe.”
The sound of another kick. “Shut up, you son of a bitch.”
The man continues asking for someone to throw water on his face. A police officer makes him an offer:
“If you want, we can pee on you.”
Shouting, the suspect responds:
“Piss on me! Piss on me!”
A police officer says:
“Hey, just keep quiet. Stop fighting.”
A near identical scene repeats itself two more times.
In 1987, El Salvador signed the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, a document created in 1985 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It reads: "torture shall be understood to be any act intentionally performed whereby physical or mental pain or suffering is inflicted on a person for purposes of criminal investigation, as a means of intimidation, as personal punishment, as a preventive measure, as a penalty, or for any other purpose. Torture shall also be understood to be the use of methods upon a person intended to obliterate the personality of the victim or to diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical pain or mental anguish."
Over 20 minutes have passed since the last suspects entered the holding cell. The police officers have realized I'm a journalist. One of the officers lowers the volume of the police radio, telling a colleague, “he shouldn't listen to this.”
The suspect who asked for water is now only sobbing. A nurse appears, empty handed. It appears (the wall doesn't let me see the whole scene) that the nurse moved towards the suspect to check on him.
From within the building appears Commissioner Nery Sayes, head of the police delegation, who had been meeting with other security officials. She tells the suspect to stop moving.
“Don't move, when you move, your ribs move. You are just going to do yourself more harm.”
One of the other suspects says they have a heart condition. Another complains they can't breathe, saying, “they just broke my nose.”
The suspect who asked the officers to pee on him repeats that he is dying.
I stand up in order to see the whole scene. The officer that lowered the volume on the radio and the one in charge of the reception area ask me to sit down. I tell them I am waiting to see the Commissioner. They ask me to leave.
Thursday, July 2. Commissioner Sayes answers the phone. I explain to her what I saw. I ask her if this is normally what happens in her police delegation.
"No. In fact, I left [the interior of the building] because I was told something strange was going on. An official told me, 'There are people choking,'” Sayes answers.
I ask her about what happened to the suspects. Sayes told me one of those captured had a warrant out for their arrest.
I ask her again if kicking suspects in the face while they are handcuffed is something that normally happens in her delegation.
“It is not standard protocol. Once they are handcuffed, they are vulnerable. Once they are handcuffed, they have to be cared for,” Sayes says.
I asked her what exactly happened then.
“They exaggerate when they see someone who is not a police officer listening to them,” she says.
I explain that the suspects never found out I was a journalist.
They kick him with the strength a goalie kicks a soccer ball to clear it from the penalty area.
“Look, one said that he was asthmatic. One threw himself against the wall. I told him to stop hitting himself. One of the chubby ones fell from a roof (when he was fleeing). The asthmatic didn't even know what an inhaler was. None of them had to receive medical attention. Some were hit, I don't deny that. They [the suspects] pantomime a lot, they dramatize what is happening. There are people that hit themselves, and later report it as abuse. One threw himself against the wall on his own accord. I told them that I was filming it,” Sayes explains.
I ask her if they were filming while the beatings were taking place. She says no.
Hours after talking with the Commissioner, I speak with the six released suspects I had originally planned to interview. They were among those who were seated with their heads between their knees. I tell them the Commissioner's version of events. That one of the suspects threw himself against the wall. They laugh and deny it. I ask them if they saw it. One says yes, that the suspect was rolling on the floor because “he had been gassed in the face.” He says he saw the suspect only at a glance because “if we raise our heads they kick us, hit us or give us electric shocks.”
I explain to the Commissioner that some of the suspects who were already handcuffed and inside the police station received kicks to the face, ribs, and throat. I tell her that I saw it happen.
“That would be good to report to authorities, because it is not appropriate protocol,” the Commissioner responded.