4 Things You Should Know about El Salvador's Amparo

What do you do in an emergency situation?

Call 911.

It’s a response deeply engrained in most of us, and an option we’ll most likely never have to use. In the horrific event that we lost a family member, or witnessed a violent crime, or received a serious threat, we’d know what to do.

For hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, it’s not that simple.

Photo: Global Eyes Media

Photo: Global Eyes Media

Reporting a crime or requesting assistance is in itself a dangerous act. Many people fear further angering their aggressors, or being re-victimized by corrupt officials. Of the victims of violence Cristosal has assisted this year, 6% reported violence from the National Civilian Police, the very force meant to protect them.

In 2015 and 2016, El Salvador topped the global list of murders per capita, with 109 and 81 intentional homicides for every 100,000 people, respectively. To compound the issue, 19 out of every 20 murders in the Northern Triangle remains unsolved.

Even if you do call the police, chances are nothing will be done to solve the murder or protect other potential victims, such as witnesses or family members. Victims of violence in Central America face an impossible situation: traumatized, managing a fear that’s all too legitimate, they have nowhere to turn.

The Constitution of El Salvador states, "Every person has the right to life, physical and moral integrity, freedom, security, work, property and possession, and to be protected in the conservation and defense of these rights."

Cristosal is helping bridge the gap between this promise and the current reality in the country. By the end of the year, Cristosal will accompany 6 families in filing an appeal called an amparo to the Supreme Court.

What is an amparo?

A legal tool for victims of rights violations. It can be used to address a rights violation when ordinary protection mechanisms fail. It must be filed by a direct victim of a rights violation—this means an amparo must be connected with a specific and current incident.

To file an amparo, a citizen must identify

  • A right that’s protected under the Constitution
  • An action or omission that directly violates their ability to exercise that right

What rights does it apply to?

The amparo can be employed in any situation where a provision protected by the Constitution is violated, whether or not it is explicitly called a “right.” It can apply to any legal category relevant to upholding the Constitution in the interest of the people.

This gives the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court room to gradually shape and systematize what it means to protect “the rights granted by this Constitution.”

What does an amparo do?

If accepted, the impact an amparo can have is twofold:

  • First, it orders direct assistance to the people who filed the amparo. It also identifies specific parties who are responsible for providing that assistance.
  • Second, it motivates the creation or correction of laws, policies, and programs to address the violation of rights on a structural level.

These two functions are interconnected. When one person’s rights are violated, it’s a sign that current protective measures are inadequate. Manuel Montecino Giralt from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it this way in 2011: “The defense of the Constitution is only conceivable from the defense of the rights recognized in it.”

What’s the latest on Cristosal’s amparo cases?

By the end of the year, Cristosal will accompany 6 families who have been forcibly displaced by violence in filing amparos. Three of these amparos have been accepted so far.

 The petitioning families have been forcibly displaced by violence against themselves or their family members, perpetrated by gangs or police. Victims have endured things like beatings, threats, break-ins, and rape.

The amparos report that the families’ rights to personal security, freedom of movement, and property ownership were violated. They name several government organizations that failed in their duty to protect these rights, including the Attorney General’s Office, the National Civilian Police, and the Witness Protection Program.

In the three accepted cases, the Constitutional Chamber recognized the threat to petitioners’ lives, liberty, psychological well-being, and property. The Court ordered the National Civilian Police and the Attorney General’s Office to take necessary emergency action to protect the petitioners and prosecute their aggressors.

Three more amparos are in process or planned before the end of the year. Although it’s too late for many people to benefit directly from their appeals, they are motivated to file because they want to create a better future for other Salvadorans.

The next step is to look for an additional ruling from the Court that would order the executive and legislative branches to bring governmental policy in line with international standards pertaining to the protection of people displaced by violence.

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Learn more about El Salvador’s amparo:

Giralt, M. M. (April 15, 2011). The Amparo in El Salvador: its aims and the rights protected. La Revista IUS. Instituto de Ciencias Jurídicas de Puebla. Retrieved from www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1870-21472011000100007

 

Hannah Rose Nelson