El Salvador quarantine centers become points of contagion

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has imposed some of the hemisphere’s toughest measures against the new coronavirus — closing his country’s borders, imposing a national quarantine and dispatching police and the army to detain violators.

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An overwhelming majority of Salvadorans approve of Bukele’s performance, but human rights advocates complain the 38-year-old leader has ignored the country’s constitution and rulings by its Supreme Court.

At the heart of the controversy are “containment centers” where thousands of Salvadorans have been detained for more than a month at a time without judicial review, some swept off the street as they went to buy food for their families. Others had the bad luck to be traveling outside the country when Bukele imposed the quarantine and were locked up upon return.

In some 90 rented hotels, convention centers and gymnasiums hastily converted to police-guarded shelters, the government mixed the sick with the healthy, often waiting weeks before testing people for the virus, according to human rights groups and people who have been detained.

The country's Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the detentions are unconstitutional since no law authorizes them. But Bukele has ignored the order and accused critics of seeking the deaths of thousands of Salvadorans.

“Of course in all containment centers there’s a risk of the illness, because they are designed to hold the population that has the highest risk of suffering the illness,” Health Minister Francisco Alabí told The Associated Press. He apologized if the 30-plus day detentions resulted in “inconveniences.”

Tourism Minister Morena Valdez, who is part of the government’s containment team, said that some 7,000 people in the nation of about 6.4 million have been held in the shelters. Officials have not revealed how many of those held have tested positive for the disease, nor how many have died. Nationwide, the government has reported 1,265 cases and 26 deaths.

Bukele announced on March 11 that El Salvador was closing itself to foreigners and that Salvadorans returning to the country would be subject to 30-day forced quarantine in the new centers — a stay twice as long as that recommended by the World Health Organization.

The next day, 67-year-old Carlos Henríquez Cortez, a Salvadoran manager for a steel company on a two-day business trip to Guatemala, checked with his embassy there. He was told that because he was over 60 years old and suffered from hypertension he would have to quarantine at home — not in a government center — according to a detailed account by the José Simeón Cañas Central American University Human Rights Institute and his relatives.

A day later, Henríquez flew into a San Salvador airport in chaos. After hours of confusion, he was bused with dozens of others to a sports complex known as the Olympic Village that was being used to house those swept up in the president’s quarantine decree.

Photographs he sent to his family depict a sea of people crowded together in a large hall, clogged toilets, broken sinks and mold-coated showers. People coming from all over the world, including the most infected countries, were stuffed 10 to a room on bunk beds that touched.

Henríquez told relatives he felt surrounded by people getting sick. People coughed through the night.

That experience was shared by business executive Ernesto Sánchez, 38, who flew into El Salvador March 12 after a 36-hour business trip to Panama and was also bused to the Olympic Village.

“They didn’t examine us,” he told the AP. “The most they did was take our temperature.”

He said 50 to 55 men were assigned to his unit, sharing dirty communal showers and bathrooms. He said he was terrified of those around him.

“I knew they came from countries with infections,” said Sánchez, who asked that only part of his name be used to avoid retaliation. “It was more a center of contamination.”

Five days into Henríquez 's stay he had a fever and began coughing. He waited in line for hours to see a doctor who gave him medicine for his fever.

“We as a family identified, after a week, the symptoms (in him) one by one,” said his son Carlos.

Henríquez’s condition worsened and on March 22 he was transferred to a small hotel, according to the report. A doctor saw him the following day and diagnosed him with colitis and dehydration. Under pressure from his family, the Health Ministry sent another doctor to see him. That doctor ordered his immediate transfer to a hospital.

Soon unable to talk, he sent his family desperate text messages. “Get me out of here,” “I’m scared,” “Help.” Held in a ward surrounded by COVID-19 patients, Henríquez wasn't tested until March 27. The result was positive.

A week later, before heading to his second hospital, Henríquez wrote to his wife to say goodbye. It was the last communication his family would have with him, because the hospital took his phone. A few days later, the attending doctor told his family he was intubated and in intensive care.

At a third hospital, doctors told the family Henríquez’s kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis. But the dialysis machine never arrived.

On April 22, Henríquez died.

The human rights center concluded that Henríquez’s detention had been arbitrary, unsupported by any law and likely led to his death.

The case “is a clear example of the improvisation and disorganization of the government in managing the containment and prevention measures of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the institute concluded.

Henríquez’s relatives said they have received no response from the government since the human rights report was published last week, nor has it provided information about those who have fallen ill inside its containment centers. They believe he was infected during detention.

“My father-in-law was a very good person, a man of faith and he always fought against injustices and was a person who helped his neighbors,” said Oscar Monedero. “That motivated us to bring to light the injustices that he lived.”

Tourism Minister Valdez told the AP conditions have improved, and that the centers now separate those who test positive.

Sanchez, meanwhile, was eventually moved to another center and was tested three times, coming up negative. But officials held him for 48 days.

“They have violated my rights,” Sánchez said. “They told me it would be for 30 days and it was 48. ... I had not committed any crime and I had a right for them to tell me what was happening.”

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Sherman reported from Mexico City.