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As Pandemic Epicenter Shifts to Latin America, Gov’ts Use COVID-19 as Pretext for Police Repression

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As the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic shifts to Latin America, so too has the use of COVID-19 as a pretext for police repression. “We’re seeing that COVID-19, like other pandemics before it, magnifies structural discrimination. And sadly, it’s often the most marginalized that are the first targets,” says Louise Tillotson, co-author of a new Amnesty International report on the abuse. We also go to San Salvador to speak with journalist Jorge Cuéllar.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic shifts to Latin America, so too does the use of COVID-19 as a pretext for police repression. A new report by Amnesty International details the increasing use of arbitrary, punitive, violent attacks in Latin America and the Caribbean as governments enforce coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions.

In El Salvador, hundreds of people detained in government facilities, allegedly aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, have protested to demand to be freed and be given the results of their COVID-19 tests. This is a group of people who say they’ve been held in one of San Salvador’s quarantine detention centers for over 45 days. This footage was published last week by a Central American human rights organization.

SALVADORAN DETAINEE: [translated] We are people who are detained illegally for 45 days. We are asking authorities to free us. We have been tested for the coronavirus four times and tested negative all four times. But the authorities still say there is a COVID-19-positive person among us, which is completely false. We demand answers of how it is possible there is a positive case among us, after being detained illegally for 45 days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re going to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, where we’re joined by Jorge Cuéllar, assistant professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies at Dartmouth College. He traveled to El Salvador in late February to continue research for his book, now on lockdown in the capital, San Salvador, with his parents. His recent article for ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America is headlined “El Salvador’s Two Pandemics: Maximum Insecurity.” Also with us, in Mexico City, is Louise Tillotson, researcher for Amnesty International Americas, co-author of their new report titled “Authorities must protect people from COVID-19 instead of resorting to repressive measures.”

Jorge Cuéllar, let’s begin with you. Describe what’s happening in El Salvador.

JORGE CUÉLLAR: Well, thank you for inviting me to the program, Amy.

What we’re seeing here in San Salvador, and El Salvador, more broadly, is the use of the pandemic in order to keep people in their homes, enforce a militarized lockdown and to ensure this kind of — the nonspreading of the coronavirus. What’s very strange about what’s going on is that the president has offered very little clarity and transparent information as to what’s happening in the quarantines, as the clip that you shared just mentioned. There’s things going on there. People are receiving poor treatment, with unhygienic conditions, with broken restrooms, for example, and in overcrowded conditions, that are creating very tense situations within the quarantines, that have even led to hunger strikes and protests by individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip of a group of men who say they’ve been illegally detained at one of San Salvador’s so-called containment centers for over 45 days. This footage was published also by the Central American human rights organization, one of the men in the group speaking of the conditions inside.

SALVADORAN DETAINEE: [translated] We don’t have supplies, which we have been asking for for days, supplies like water, alcohol, gel, soap for the bathroom and for personal hygiene. We want to reinforce that the food provided by the government arrives here already rotten, causing stomach problems among those of us who are detained here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jorge Cuéllar, if you can talk, overall, about the government and its use of COVID-19, how it’s using it as a pretext for political repression?

JORGE CUÉLLAR: So, the story of the quarantine really begins back in February, where President Nayib Bukele stormed the national — the Legislative Assembly in order to push for an anti-crime bill called the Territorial Control Plan. And this was one of the first instances when the government started to antagonize other institutions of government and create a sort of situation where unilateral decision-making became sort of the norm. And when the coronavirus sort of takes hold in Central America, Bukele uses this moment in order to sort of double down on those things that he had been pushing for prior.

So, within the situation of the pandemic, these different sanitary measures that he’s taken in order to safeguard the lives of Salvadoran people have come with the increasing number of military and police forces on the ground, that have created a series of checkpoints all over the country, as well as kind of creating a certain climate of intimidation for people who are seeking to do their daily errands, to go to the pharmacy, to do their grocery runs, with this kind of idea, given the history of the country and the tense situation among security forces and the general population, that they run the risk of going to, of being sent to one of these quarantines, that, as those clips also mention, are in complete disrepair. And then there’s a likelier chance that one will be infected by the coronavirus within these containment centers than just staying and remaining home.


JORGE CUÉLLAR: So, it’s this kind of — yeah, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Louise Tillotson into the conversation, one of the researchers on this new Amnesty International report called “Authorities must protect people from COVID-19 instead of resorting to repressive measures.” As you look at what’s happening in Latin America, talk about what you’re seeing, not only in El Salvador, but around the region.

LOUISE TILLOTSON: Yeah, thank you. At Amnesty International, we started documenting incidents of repression in the context of COVID-19, with our digital verification team and country researchers, just a few days after the lockdowns were put in place across the region. So, in a seven-week period, we documented some 60 instances of repression in a number of countries.

We saw four worrying trends. In some countries, we’ve seen detention being used massively as a form to enforce lockdowns. So, in places like the Dominican Republic, to date, we’ve seen some 60,000 people detained. The videos show us that people are simply rounded up and put in the back of police trucks without physical distancing measures. We are not clear what happens to them when they’re detained, whether they have access to a lawyer nor the other safeguards one would need to see usually when people are being detained.

We also saw many videos of humiliating and degrading treatment by the police. One of the things that started to emerge in the videos we saw from across the region was the police punishing people with these humiliating tactics of sort of getting them to do jumping jacks and force group exercise, and sometimes using Tasers on them.

We also saw indications of excess use of force by the police for people that were protesting for access to food and other basic needs. So, places like Venezuela, we saw Indigenous communities protesting in need of food, and repression being used against them.

And as we’re also hearing and in the videos that you showed, in many countries, in El Salvador, in Venezuela, but also in other Central American countries and in Paraguay, we’re seeing this phenomenon of mandatory quarantines in inhumane conditions, as you describe, where people don’t have basic sanitation and people are not being tested.

So, all the videos that we looked at indicate to us that people that are living in poverty, homeless people, migrants and refugees are much more likely to be impacted by these punitive measures. And so we’re seeing that COVID-19, like other pandemics before it, magnifies structural discrimination. And sadly, it’s often the most marginalized that are the first targets of these punitive responses.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Louise Tillotson, where you are, in Mexico City, in Mexico, what has been the response of AMLO, the president, of Andrés Manuel López Obrador?

LOUISE TILLOTSON: Here in Mexico, we’ve seen a softer lockdown than in other parts of the region, in the sense that we haven’t seen mass deployment of police and military to enforce it. We have seen some incidents of repression that are concerning, but our main focus has been on the issue of violence against women. Of course, there’s another epidemic in Latin America, and that holds true here in Mexico, and that’s violence against women.

So, just in March, before lockdowns or stay-at-home orders were put in place, tens of thousands of women here in Mexico took to the streets demanding that the authorities do more around femicides, do more around domestic violence. And then, what we’ve seen since the stay-at-home orders have been in place is the number of calls to hotlines for domestic violence spiked significantly. We haven’t seen leadership from the president on this issue. We’ve called on the authorities in these difficult times to make sure that they provide enough resources to protect survivors from gender-based violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Professor Cuéllar. The Salvadoran president, Bukele, last month authorized police and military to use lethal force against alleged gang members, following a spate of homicides allegedly linked to gang activity. Authorities said more than 50 people were murdered in a single weekend, after imprisoned suspected gang members allegedly ordered the killings from behind bars. Shocking images, many of which were shared on Bukele’s own Twitter account, show prisoners crammed together, with only some wearing face masks, as prisons enforce — and we’re going to show a photograph; it’s unbelievable — around-the-clock lockdown on suspected gang members, which includes putting metal sheets over prison bars and housing prisoners from rival gangs in the same overcrowded cells. You have these images of like a thousand men with each of them in the legs of the one before. And we’re going to show that image again. If you could respond to this, the video?

JORGE CUÉLLAR: Yeah, that image and those videos of that day are instructive as to what’s happening in the country, where there is a kind of security initiative that’s taking place during the coronavirus pandemic. And what we see in these images is that there’s clearly no way that social distancing can happen within the decrepit and dungeon-like prison system in El Salvador. And these men, like you notice, have very little protection on.

But these images, what they did, with how they functioned in society, is that they demonstrated to the country that, indeed, the security initiatives that Bukele has set into motion have been effective in curtailing the violence against gangs, though what we see with this kind of homicide spike that happened in late April was that the territorial control that the government thinks that they’ve achieved is actually quite, quite fragile and perhaps not true.

This ongoing kind of tension between gangs and the state is something that has also been historically present in different administrations, that have often used images of gang member humiliation to push this idea that punitive measures are the only option to correct the most undesirable elements of Salvadoran society. But what we see here is this kind of overwhelming dehumanization of these people, who are now under this idea that putting them together in the same cells and shutting them off from even seeing sunlight, as the center — Osiris Luna, the director of the penal system, mentioned, is really not going to solve the problem in the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Tillotson, as the epicenter of the global pandemic shifts from the United States to Latin America, what are you calling for? What is Amnesty International calling for, on the authorities, around the issue of police repression, using COVID-19 as a pretext?

LOUISE TILLOTSON: Yeah. We’re concerned by this sort of creeping repression that we’re seeing. Of course, in international human rights law, countries can take measures to protect public health. But sadly, in a region where we saw excessive force by the police consistently in 2019, including during states of emergency, used as a way to repress dissent, we’re worried. Governments have extraordinary powers in the current context.

Of course, COVID-19 presents us with huge challenges. But measures that governments take, including mandatory quarantines and enforcements of lockdowns, need to be necessary and proportionate, because beyond the fact that these measures can be repressive and violate a number of human rights, they also stand to undermine prevention efforts. So, when people are detained en masse, like we’ve seen in the Dominican Republic, or put in these obligatory, mandatory quarantines, like we’ve seen in El Salvador and Venezuela and Paraguay, where they can’t physically distance, that’s counterproductive to all our efforts.

So we’ve launched a campaign called Repression Is Not Protection, and we’ll be monitoring states to ensure that they don’t overreach or abuse their powers and continue repressing in the name of COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Tillotson, we want to thank you for being with us, Amnesty International Americas. We’ll link to your report, “Authorities must protect people from COVID-19 instead of resorting to repressive measures.” And, Professor Jorge Cuéllar, thanks so much for joining us from El Salvador. We’ll link to your article, “El Salvador’s Two Pandemics: Maximum Insecurity.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, President Trump has just issued an executive order, after Twitter deletes one of his tweets and now has flagged another, saying it’s promoting violence — they didn’t delete it, but they said that his tweet was promoting misinformation. Stay with us.

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