Usulutan, El Salvador – For the past five months, Marcela Alvarado has made an almost daily pilgrimage to different Salvadoran government offices demanding her son Jose Duval Mata Alvarado’s release.
Mata Alvarado, a 26-year-old tractor driver with three children, has been in prison since April of last year, when he was accused of being involved with a gang under an emergency order imposed across the Central American nation a month earlier.
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A judge ordered his release in September, but Mata Alvarado was immediately rearrested after being freed – and remains behind bars today.
“I’m really distressed because they say that there [in prison] they can die,” said Alvarado, 51, who told Al Jazeera that her son was falsely accused and has no ties to gangs.
More than 64,000 Salvadorans have been arrested during the government’s “state of exception”, which lawmakers extended for the 11th time on February 15 and suspends certain civil liberties, such as the right to a lawyer and time limits on pre-trial detention.
President Nayib Bukele has defended the measure amid criticism from rights groups, saying it has reduced homicides, extortion, and visible gang presence. Crimes rates have dropped enough, at least in the short term, that Salvadorans report feeling safer.
The country’s security minister also recently said it would remain in place until all gang members are arrested. Officials estimate that meant at least 10,000 more arrests.
But now, the police workers union and human rights groups have said a rising number of Salvadorans detained under the state of exception – including Mata Alvarado – have been “re-arrested” upon release after either being granted bail or having their cases dropped.
This has raised fears that the government plans to ensure the people already behind bars stay there, particularly in the lead-up to the February 2024 elections, in which Bukele has said he will seek re-election in violation of the country’s constitution.
“From the beginning, we pointed out that it was not so crazy to think that the state of exception could extend until the elections,” said Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer and director of Salvadoran NGO Citizen Action (Accion Ciudadana).
With citizens’ approval rate for the policy at 76 percent, that suspicion has “now been confirmed”, Escobar told Al Jazeera. “They have created a narrative that there is a government that pulled its pants up and eliminated the gangs here,” he said. “They can’t close the issue now, because it’s the greatest achievement that they’ve had.”
The Salvadoran government has not provided data on how many of the cases have reached a verdict, which typically can take years in the country’s justice system.
By mid-January, about 3,745 people arrested during the state of exception – but who Bukele has said are innocent – had been released, according to the most recent government statistics.
But with government data showing that 49,000 people had been arrested nationwide as of last August, these tens of thousands of detainees should be eligible for a hearing to determine if they can be released from pre-trial detention, which can only last six months.
Hector Carillo, director of the access to justice programme at the Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law (FESPAD), a Salvadoran NGO, said defence lawyers are buckling under the weight of all their cases and many are unable to request these special hearings.
Prosecutors also have not had time to gather enough evidence within the six-month period of pre-trial detention, so they have often requested extensions. “This leads to people continuing in detention,” Carillo said.
For prisoners who were released, two types of rearrests were occurring, according to the police union and human rights groups following the issue.
The first is seen in the case of Mata Alvarado, who his mother said was immediately rearrested outside the prison. At the end of September, his mother said she received a call from an official saying her son was being released. Fifteen minutes later, Alvarado’s phone rang again. This time, the person on the other end told her not to come to the prison.
Weeks later, she said she received information that her son had been arrested again for “illicit association” – a common charge levied against people accused of being involved with gangs during the state of exception.
In other instances, people return to their communities and resume their daily lives before being taken back into custody. In one case reported in local media, a man who was released due to lack of evidence was arrested again at his workplace for the same crime of “illicit association”. His wife told the press that she worried about his health because he began to experience heart problems while in prison the first time.
Arresting someone twice for the same crime is illegal under Salvadoran law.
Marvin Reyes, a representative of the police workers union, said he believed police are carrying out these arrests based on a “political order” that could only come from a high-ranking government official.
The Salvadoran national police and Bukele’s office did not respond to requests from Al Jazeera on whether an order had been issued to rearrest detainees upon their release. But Reyes said that whatever is behind it, the policy’s intention is clear: “To maintain the number of people in prison.”
Keeping people behind bars has only further strained the Salvadoran prison system, which was already at a breaking point before the influx of prisoners during the state of exception.
Human rights groups had previously reported overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and shortages of basic food and hygiene products in the facilities. This has worsened as the prison population is nearly triple the nationwide capacity of 30,000 people, according to a new Human Rights Watch report based on a leaked database.
In-custody deaths during the state of exception also reached 107 as of February 15, according to a continuing investigation by Salvadoran NGO Cristosal.
On January 31, Bukele announced a new prison with a 40,000-person capacity, the largest in the region. In a video posted on Twitter, Bukele toured the vast concrete facility, known as the “Center for Confinement of Terrorism”, with officials including prisons director Osiris Luna, sanctioned by the US for corruption.
They visited windowless isolation cells, a room full of police riot gear, and a control room for 24-hour monitoring fuelled by the complex’s 19 surveillance towers – all of which they said were needed in the fight against “terrorists”, as the government refers to gang members.
But for many relatives of Salvadorans detained during the state of exception, hearing stories from the prisons is what pushes them to be so insistent about their loved ones’ release.
“They [the officials] tell me to have patience, but I tell them that I don’t want to be called from a funeral home someday, telling me to come get him because he’s dead,” Alvarado told Al Jazeera about her son. “They took him alive and I want him alive.”