Dawn breaks in the Valle del Sol, Apopa, a neighborhood in El Salvador of the stature of La Campanera, a former refuge for the feared gangs today cornered in the Central American country. It is the time when the children are already in school and the women go to the mill to prepare the tortillas for midday. It is also the time chosen by the police to hunt down the enemy.
— Do you live alone here?
—Yes, I live alone, I am divorced.
“Have you been detained before?”
No, I have never been arrested.
-I can pass?
“Yes, go ahead.
It is Víctor Barahona, a 56-year-old Salvadoran journalist, who lets an agent of the National Civil Police of El Salvador into his house, on June 7, 2022. Three months after the Salvadoran government imposed an emergency regime to dissolve the Mara Salvatrucha force and the Barrio 18 in that country.
The police agent has a clear instruction: to inspect the journalist’s house and ask for his identity document to search for his police records in the system. After taking an x-ray with his eyes, the policeman asks him:
“Do you have tattoos?”
“Yes, a rose.
Victor proceeds to show her.
The agent doesn’t seem to have anything else to do at the journalist’s house and with his identity document in hand, he asks him to accompany him to the police station. But let him accompany him in handcuffs for “safety.”
“Because? I am a member of the press. Here is my credential ”, says a fearful Víctor who recounts his testimony to the voice of america. In his defense he delivers the credentials of the channel 29 of El Salvador and community radio “Your Wave Club”, but it’s not enough. The agent observes them and responds again: “Come with us.”
Víctor’s first five hours in bartolinas were uncertain. He had his credentials because maybe the police station would take them into account. But instead of being given the opportunity to defend himself, he received a bag with white clothes and sandals of the same color. Víctor was getting ready to meet with an official from the Human Rights Ombudsman in El Salvador, officially, as one more detainee.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Víctor, today they are arresting Raymundo and half the world,” joked the official from the human rights office who later gave him the news that he was going to lose his freedom for at least six months.
Until January some 3,313 had been released for lack of evidence according to official figures. This represented around 5% of those caught under this measure. At the time of reporting, the Ministry of Security and the Directorate of Penal Centers indicated that they are working to “be able to remove [de prisión] to those who were at the wrong time and place.”
Then, in mid-May 2023, the Salvadoran government recognized the release of at least 5,000 people who were mistakenly imprisoned, after failing to prove their gang ties. According to the head of the Ministry of Security, Gustavo Villatoro, the people were released because the institutions in charge of supervising the actions of the National Civil Police and the Prosecutor’s Office are doing their job. The official did not speak about reparation measures.
Arrival in Mariona
The La Esperanza prison or Mariona prison in San Salvador was overcrowded in the first months of the regime: mothers and their children, fathers and other relatives camped outside the prison improvising tents with plastic bags and blankets. The police were everywhere, watching, he recalls.
That was Víctor’s first destination, who still had not assimilated what was happening to him. “They removed my hair and gave me a number. I spent the first month there, ”he says.
Only those who have entered Mariona know what lives inside. The press approaches the way of life in the prison until she talks with an ex-inmate.
Half a glass of water in the morning to drink. Half a glass of water in the afternoon. For the bathroom, there are five glasses of water per prisoner. The bath was not a daily practice, only when water fell either in the morning, at night or at dawn. It was uncertain, he recalls.
Suddenly, Victor heard: “Get down! Below!”. They were inmates who had died in other sectors of the prison whom the living were forbidden to see.
Towards Izalco, where death lives
Two months later, Víctor was on his way to another prison. But among the inmates there was a widespread rumor: that the only way out of the Izalco prison was dead, since there is a group known as “Los chacales” who are not the custodians in gray or light blue suits but a group of about 25 men who wear black clothes, Navarone hats and work in gangs. A kind of order group that appears in special cases.
Víctor is taken to that maximum security prison, 80 kilometers from San Salvador. To the “Los Chacales” prison. “I saw them. They are the most violent custodians of that prison. They beat people, take them out of the cells and take them away. We were afraid of them,” the journalist recounts.
By then, Víctor was full of mushrooms that he acquired in Mariona. And once he arrived in Izalco, his health condition worsened. One night his companions helped him to burst each of the eruptions that had appeared on his body: some with pus, others with blood. “Living that when you owe nothing… in this country… Karla… making press is a crime,” he tells me.
Lying motionless for almost three days, Victor saw death up close. He now only hoped that they would take him to a hospital and that they would notify his children and grandchildren to see them one last time in an emergency. He no longer planned to return to Izalco.
The journalist cries with those memories: “In the prison there is only a club, a stick. They suddenly take away your food. They prohibited cults (religious meetings). They told us that God did not exist there, that we were rats, garbage… that we were going to rot… ”, he says. But the strength of a god animated him.
Against the rules of Izalco, the inmates built a church. Leo was the leader, a pastor in his 50s who encouraged inmates in other cells not to stop reading the Bible or singing evangelical hymns. And since then, the word of Jesus began to be heard more strongly in prison. “But the custodians would go up to punish, shout, hit the person in charge of the church,” the journalist recounted.
In Izalco life is hard. Víctor not only lived through repression. In the cell for 50 inmates where he was, there were 100. And with the heat of mid-year, the odors increased. The inmates could not turn around without touching each other. They had become a lump.
The non-governmental organization Cristosal reported in May that at least 153 people detained in El Salvador died in state custody. during the exception regime decreed by Congress on March 27, 2022.
2023: a year with a little hope
Outside of Izalco the news about inmates dying en masse was growing.
Human rights organizations such as the Due Process Foundation (DPLF), Cristosal, and the UCA Human Rights Institute, all based in San Salvador, spoke of more than 100 dead inmates. For this reason, they echoed more before the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations, assuring that in El Salvador “extrajudicial executions” were taking place in prisons.
Víctor did not know why they began to consult in Izalco. Sometimes medicine. But the reality was that El Salvador was being questioned outside those bars because of the deaths he saw every week. What he didn’t know either was that he was approaching hope.
It is May 5, at 3 in the afternoon. Víctor had been in prison for almost 11 months when there was an inmate count in Izalco. Raise the custodian. “Take Víctor Horacio Echeverría Barahona out of cell 48.” At the back of the cell, Víctor’s companions: “You’re free, old man. You go free!” Víctor did not believe it because there was the ghost of the recapture.
In the 15 months that the emergency regime has been in force in El Salvador, the local press has documented how dozens of inmates leave prison for just a few minutes when they are notified of their recapture in front of the prison. That brief halo of hope has only served them to hug their relatives before returning to their cells.
“I will never forget May 19. I will never forget this nightmare. (…) There was a washcloth and I asked the guard if he could leave it in the cell. ‘What for?’, he told me. ‘If you’re going to go’. No, I told him. I already waited several days and several were recaptured,” Víctor replied.
But Víctor did leave Izalco that day, after 11 months in Mariona and Izalco’s cells, having lost 80 pounds in that time. Of having become sick to the point of agony and a worsening of his hypertension. Victor left.
“Seeing my family after a year in which I thought I would never see them again… It was an ordeal. I am here now because God is great.
The press at risk
Víctor Barahona is the first journalist from El Salvador to be imprisoned in the name of the emergency regime.
Within days of his capture, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) had announced the departure of nine journalists, who sought refuge in other countries after the approval of a law in El Salvador that punishes with up to 15 years in prison “any written statement” that alludes to “territorial control of gangs.” Those exits were preventive.
But Victor didn’t even think about taking refuge despite the context. When the police knocked on the door of his house, he, in the name of justice, decided to let them pass and then accompany them handcuffed to a jail from which he would not leave until 11 months later.
“Many colleagues had already told me: ‘Víctor, be careful, they’re going to put you in jail. Those interviews are very tough.’ But you can’t keep quiet… Now I know and I am one hundred percent sure that they took me because of my work”, he says.
Although APES has taken charge of the Barahona case, the association denounces the null access to the journalist’s judicial file. “It gives the impression that it is a case where they were arrested first and investigated later and a year later they have released him to the surprise even of the person who was a public defender of Mr. Víctor,” explained lawyer Oswaldo Feusier, from APES.
The VOA He requested the official position on the journalist’s case from the designated liaison between the government and the international press, but there was no response.
Víctor continues speaking with the goal that his case does not repeat itself.