Michael Busch

Last summer, El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that dismissed challenges to a terrorism law that had been on the books for nearly a decade. The decision offered plenty of reason for alarm. Not only did the court reject claims that the law was unconstitutional, it radically broadened the scope of what constitutes “terror” in El Salvador, branded the country’s gangs “terrorists,” and threatened that anyone associated with the gangs—however loosely—might well be painted with the same brush under the law.

As I wrote at the time, 

While the president attempted to balance sticks with carrots, the court rendered entire swathes of Salvadoran society potential enemies of the state. To their credit, the ruling magistrates attempted to define what constitutes unlawful support of the gangs. These are broad descriptions, though, and leave lower courts with responsibility for determining “terrorism” in specific instances, which could invite abuse and politically motivated targeting of individuals or organizations.

These worries were realized earlier this week. On Tuesday, La Página reported that the chief of police investigations, Joaquín Hernández, had sent a letter late in December to the offices of El Salvador’s attorney general, demanding that El Diario de Hoy be investigated for “defense of crime” under the terrorism law. 

Insight Crime has the rundown, in English:

Hernández's accusations arise in response to a series of articles El Diario de Hoy published in December 2015 on El Salvador's street gangs. One of the articles, titled "Gangs Control San Salvador," portrays El Salvador's capital-city as a gang-controlled battleground, and includes both a video and map detailing gang territory in the city. (See below) In another, "A Clique Controls the San Jacinto Neighborhood," El Diario writes, "The police do not escape gang control. In fact, they may be the most controlled."

In his letter to the FGR, Hernández calls the El Diario articles inaccurate, saying they give the impression "the capital is totally controlled by these criminal groups," and do not recognize the work of the FGR and police towards "preventing and repressing crime." This, Hernández argues, "magnifies" the gangs' presence in these areas, provoking "fear and terror" among the population, "which already lives terrorized by crime."

As La Página reports, Hernández “said he expects the FGR to open proceedings against the newspaper, as covered by the ruling of the Constitutional Court which declared these groups ‘terrorist groups.'”

It’s doubtful that blustery accusations of this kind will persuade the attorney general to take action. Yet the letter stands as precisely the sort of intimidation tactic that the court’s ruling last August enables. That it is directed at a prominent newspaper should be especially concerning, given some other recent episodes of media harassment allegedly by security forces, not to mention the constant threat that Salvadoran journalists operate under in reporting on the country’s violent gangs crisis. If the attorney general does open a case against El Diario de Hoy, the move will pivot El Salvador back to a period in which flagrant violations of civil liberties were acceptable under the banner of national security.   

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.