On May 1, 26-year-old Walber Rodríguez was riding his motorcycle home when a police officer stopped him. He was on his way back from the shrimping cooperative in eastern El Salvador where he works from the early hours of the morning. The officer asked him for his documents to prove his motorcycle was registered, Walber’s sister, Glenda Rodríguez, told Rest of World.
The country was in its second month of a “state of exception,” in which Congress suspended certain civil liberties and granted authorities sweeping powers to make arrests, resulting in mass arrests of more than 55,000 people President Nayib Bukele’s government has argued the measure is necessary to clean up gang violence that has torn apart Salvadoran society for decades. The officer accused Walber of being part of one of these gangs and arrested him.
When Walber’s family found out, they rushed to the scene and asked the arresting officer what proof he had of a crime having been committed. The officer flashed a photo of Walber on his cellphone. Another family member immediately identified it as his Facebook profile picture. “What’s wrong with having a Facebook profile? It’s not illegal,” Glenda remembered saying. “If everyone who has social media is going to end up in a prison, no one’s going to be able to fit.”
Neither Glenda nor anyone else in her family have been able to visit Walber since his arrest. She believes someone made a false accusation against Walber. Glenda told Rest of World she had seen a spike in the use of social media comments as a form of reporting crimes to the police, and the officer’s use of only Walber’s Facebook picture as evidence led her to believe that this had happened to brother’s as well.
Walber is not alone. The rise of social media-driven arrests in El Salvador came about as a result of Bukele’s push to get citizens involved in his crackdown by reporting suspected crime. In May, the Salvadoran police (PNC) opened an official, dedicated phone line to receive tips from citizens who suspected others of being so-called terrorists, as the government refers to gang members.
Law enforcement soon began to get reports through public and private messages on its social media. Marvin Reyes, a representative for the Salvadoran Police Workers’ Union, told Rest of World these were mainly through Facebook and Twitter accounts, run by an IT department, which were meant to be used as channels for official information. Rest of World spoke to three independent human rights organizations, families of those detained, and a representative of the Salvadoran police union, all of whom reported that hundreds of Salvadorans have been arrested as a result of social media tips since El Salvador’s state of exception began seven months ago.
Rest of World reached out to the police spokesperson, but they did not agree to an interview by the time of publication, stating that “all our forces are focused on the current emergency,” referring to Tropical Storm Julia.
As opposed to the official hotlines set up by the police for citizens to phone-in anonymous tips about criminals, human rights groups and sources close to the police worry that the staff receiving accusations on social media are not trained to identify whether or not they are legitimate. To make matters worse, experts believe that the police and the government have little incentive to verify these accusations, since the state of exception’s success is being measured through quotas that these social media arrests help bolster.
“This is very dangerous and risky,” Reyes told Rest of World. “The police should have an area where the people can digitally make an accusation and then verify if the information is true or not.”
Reyes explained that, as opposed to those working on the dedicated phone lines, the IT workers who have been thrown into the task of reading and deciding how to react to these online accusations are unqualified to make such decisions. They are unprepared to distinguish between a true tip and a false report, he said.
Some allegations are posted publicly, and can be very specific. “Dear police officers, please stop and check all the bread sellers who drive on motorcycles. In the villages, starting at 6 a.m. they sell bread, but also drugs,” wrote a Twitter user, @Antonio39179734, an account almost exclusively used to support the government, suggesting it is a bot.
Another user replied, “It’s because of people like these that they are taking people who are selling honestly. I am sure they don’t sell drugs. No one wants problems, much less during these times.”
Messages such as these became an inadvertent part of the pipeline to mass imprisonment in El Salvador. Spreading chambre, the Salvadoran slang for gossip, can now have serious — or even deadly — consequences. At least 80 people have allegedly died in prison since the state of exception began.
Human rights groups say most of the arrests they’ve documented qualify as arbitrary detentions which would indicate there is insufficient proof of a crime. The Salvadoran NGO, Fespad, has been providing legal support to detainees. The director of its Access to Justice program, Héctor Carrillo, told Rest of World that social media accusations are a symptom of a bigger problem with the state of exception: Authorities have been pressured to carry out arrests to fulfill quotas, which has disincentivized rigorous investigations.
As their prevalence has increased, various NGOs working with families of detainees have recently started documenting social media detentions. A report by Cristosal, a Central American human rights nonprofit, registered 162 cases of arrests, based on both hotline and social media tip offs, in the seven months from the start of the state of exception to October 18. The Passionist Social Services, a Salvadoran NGO, has documented another 108 cases from April to September. Only one of the people arrested in these cases has been released so far.
Other NGOs told Rest of World they have not systematically tracked these types of cases, but have learned of them through the families who reached out to them for help. “It is happening,” said Fespad’s Carrillo.
Outside the Izalco prison, an hour west of the country’s capital, where family members gather to leave monthly care packages for their relatives, many of the dozens of people Rest of World spoke to had heard of complaints being sent through social media. One woman from Santa Ana, who requested anonymity for her security, told Rest of World she thought it was mostly women who were sending the complaints, because of “jealousy” or love triangles. She believes her neighbor was arrested for this reason.
As of October 25, Glenda Rodríguez’s brother, Walber, is still detained in the Mariona prison, north of San Salvador. Glenda’s sister and nephew have also been arrested under the state of exception.
“The state of exception isn’t a measure for the country’s security,” said Glenda. “It’s a way to control society.” She believes social media companies are not making things any better. “They are not responsible for human behavior,” Glenda said, “but they should be more attentive to how their platforms are used.”