Salvadoran media outlets El Faro and Revista Factum threatened for publishing about alleged police death squad

In the week since Revista Factum published a report about the alleged existence of a death squad inside the Salvadoran police, they have received death threats, been targeted by smear campaigns and received attacks trying to take down their website. Independent news site El Faro, which has also reported on alleged extrajudicial killings by the police, has also recently received threats.

"The person who manages the server told us that every dawn there are 150 thousand attempts, through bots, to enter the site and take it down. All this implies the violation of another right, the right to the free exercise of journalism. The resources that we could be using to produce journalism are being used to try to protect us,” Héctor Silva, co-director and one of the founders of Revista Factum, told the Knight Center.

The Aug. 22 story in Revista Factum, "In the privacy of the Police’s death squad," reported that four agents of the Special Reaction Forces of El Salvador (FES for its acronym in Spanish), a specialized unit of the National Civil Police (PNC), allegedly murdered gang members in what they later presented as a confrontation.

The four police officers denounced in the article were detained for 72 hours and are being processed administratively, not criminally, by the police, according to the director of the PNC, Howard Cotto. According to Revista Factum, these policemen are part of a death squad that commits murders, sexual assaults on minors and extortion. They are currently free, working and doing "desktop work", according to Silva.

Silva, told the Knight Center that the issue of death squads within the police is a very serious issue. "We are a media outlet of seven people, with scarce resources and very precarious security measures – we have managed to determine that there are killings from a cell of an elite group. This only ends up opening the window of what El Faro and La Prensa Gráfica have already said about homicides attributed to police in El Salvador,” Silva said.

Factum also reported how dozens of PNC members, through Whatsapp conversations, allegedly exchange information on illegal arms sales, coordinate executions of gang members, share pornography, and discuss other acts, like those carried out by hitmen, committed inside the police agency. According to the magazine, its monitoring of the chatter on Whatsapp was done for three months, thanks to an active collaborator of the FES who participated in several crimes.

All this occurs within the framework in which the political class, starting with the party in office, has negotiated a lot of things with the gangs, Silva explained. "Then, with one hand, they are giving a political belt by negotiating with them, and with the other hand they are selling this policy of an iron fist, repression, frontal attack, of open warfare," he said.

On Aug. 23, one day after the publication of the magazine's report, Cotto said in a television interview that "preventive measures have been implemented [for the officers] following the publication of this article (...) according to the Disciplinary Law, our obligation is to immediately implement a preventive measure that has even entailed a preventive detention." He also said that they had communicated with the Attorney General of the Republic about these measures.

However, Factum reported that the specialized unit of the Prosecutor’s Office against organized crime had not advanced the case. Even the assigned prosecutor orally reprimanded the employee who reported the crimes of his ex-companions for talking about it with the journalists, according to Factum.

Silva said that on Aug. 28, the Attorney General said that they "are investigating the case; but they have the same testimonies that we (Factum) had for three months, and have done nothing. There is no decision to investigate them." He added, "If you add that many of the threats received by journalists who investigate these issues come from social network accounts that are handled by the police, then you start to understand that there is a systemic problem of tolerance here.”

El Faro reported that the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights has ordered precautionary measures to protect journalists from Factum. El Faro also denounced that neither the Executive nor any Public Security authority has taken an official position or communicated with the journalists in this regard. Óscar Ortiz, vice president of the republic, said publicly on Aug. 28, as the only mention of the subject, “knock on wood to make sure nothing happens to a journalist,” La Prensa Gráfica reported.

Following the resolution of precautionary measures issued by the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, Factum journalists met with Commissioner Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, deputy director of specialized police areas, responsible for the FES - the elite unit in which the alleged death squad is located.

"Arriaza offered us security through elements of the police, gave us bodyguards. We told him not because we did not trust the police. Especially because 36 hours after the article was published, people from the police arrived at our offices, some without identification, and others identifying themselves and trying to enter, to the facilities of El Faro, as well, which are next door.”

Following the recent report on the alleged police death squad published by Factum, four people without visible official identification arrived in a blue microbus to the door of the offices of Factum, and claimed to be with the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, El Faro reported. These asked about the entry and exit times of journalists. Consulted by Factum, the attorney’s office denied having sent any of its delegates.

Two days later, El Faro also reported that several men inside a green sedan showed up at their offices identifying themselves as journalistic sources of the Police. Shortly after, another person introduced himself and tried to enter.

In 2015, El Faro had reported on alleged PNC abuses during a mass detention of youths under 30 years old, who were taken as gang suspects and brutally beaten and tortured. They also reported on extrajudicial executions allegedly carried out by police that year of eight people of an estate called San Blas, whom the police had indicated as members of a "criminal structure." El Faro clarified in its report, through consultations with specialists that were based on forensic analysis and evidence, that these people were assassinated from the front, without there being any exchange of shots, as was reported by the Police.

Consequently, the journalists and a shareholder of El Faro were victims of threats, harassment and acts of intimidation, which were denounced before the Prosecutor's Office and the Police. To date, these acts have not yet been clarified by the authorities, the same media reported.

For two weeks, Factum journalists have been forced, for their safety, to work from cafes and not from their office. With the help of friendly organizations, they also managed to temporarily get two of the journalists who worked directly on reports of alleged extrajudicial executions out of the country. "We are looking at how to improve the security of our facilities, trying to raise funds for it. (...) We have also made the decision to limit our mobility,” Silva said.

Since Factum’s publication on the alleged death squad, several Twitter and Facebook accounts began to launch serious threats against the media outlet.

According to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Twitter account "Defensores Azules," allegedly from a group within the Police, published the tweet: "I have to see them as Christian Poveda @RevistaFactum @ ElFaro dead in the hands of the ones you protect." Poveda was a French-Spanish documentary filmmaker who was murdered by the Mara 18 in 2009 in El Salvador after filming a documentary about gang violence with the consent of its members.

In an Aug. 28 editorial published by El Faro, Blaming the Messenger, the site lamented that civil society and the government respond to complaints about violations of human rights inside the police, made by them and other media such as Factum, by accusing them of being in a campaign against the Executive, against the security forces and against society in general.

"In a serious exercise of cynicism and irresponsibility, the journalists of El Faro and other media outlets have been accused over and over of exaggerating, of lying, of responding to party agendas, of belonging to alleged hyper-ideologized business axes, of protecting criminals or even being allied with the gangs to discredit the police," the editorial said.

All this government speech, of "they (the journalists) are the enemies," taking into consideration the agreements that the same government has made in recent years with gang leaders, "is an intolerable cynicism," Silva said.

In more formal terms, Silva said, Factum is evaluating the possibility of requesting precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), so that this organization can demand the government of El Salvador to investigate this issue of extrajudicial executions more thoroughly . "Specifically, the three murders, the two sexual assaults of minors and the acts of extortion committed by these four police officers" mentioned in the report, Silva said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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