How A Case Of Mistaken Identity Left A Man Dead In El Salvador’s Brutal Prisons

Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez was an innocent man, yet he died in El Salvador because police, prosecutors, and a judge mistook him for a different Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez.

He should never have been in the prison system in the first place, but he was mistaken for another man of the same name who had a criminal history: a man eight years younger with a gang tattoo across his chest and a history that included charges of illegal gun possession, extortion, and murder.

The Washington Post reported that Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez was one of more than 50 prisoners who were crammed together in a small holding cell holding in El Salvador’s horror of a prison system. According to a guard, it was hot and humid, and the prisoners’ half-naked bodies reeked of urine and ulcers from a recent outbreak of bacteria. A few weeks later Martínez was dead, the fifth person from that cell to die in four months

How could this happen? How could an innocent man wind up dead in El Salvador’s prisons? There must surely be deep flaws in El Salvador’s justice system.

President Trump has put border control at the top of his list at a time when thousands of Central Americans are fleeing towards the United States. The weakness of El Salvador’s police and prison system have become glaringly obvious, and the institutions that allowed an innocent man to be imprisoned and die within their systems have failed dismally in preventing street gangs from turning El Salvador into one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Even though the United States government has spent millions in recent years helping Central American countries capture and prosecute corrupt officials and gang leaders, the system is still dysfunctional. Yes, there have been some improvements, but forensic evidence is often not used by police in El Salvador, prosecutors are handling several hundred cases at any one time, and the prisons are shocking: so shocking that the Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional.

During a lockdown in the prisons and a crackdown in the streets, Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez got caught up in a chain of events that ended in his death. Martínez was a 37-year-old bus dispatcher, a volunteer first-responder, and the father of two children: a man who certainly had nothing in common with the actual fugitive the authorities were looking for, said Public Defender Saúl Sánchez.

“His only sin was having the same name.”

It was in San Pedro Masahuat in October, 2014, that a man was ambushed by five men with guns: the man hid behind cars to avoid being shot. Later, when being interviewed by prosecutor Guillermo Molina, he described his assailants – four gang members and the leader called Wisper.

Not only did the victim know Wisper’s name, he also had an idea where Jorge Chávez lived: he lived in a sheet-metal shack on the edge of town, he was around 26-years-old, and he was covered in gang tattoos, which included an eagle on his back and the letters M.S. across his chest. M.S. stood for Mara Salvatrucha.

The investigation was based almost entirely on the testimony of the victim, which is common in El Salvador. There’s been a huge push to introduce scientific evidence into the judicial system in El Salvador, but, according to watchdog groups and legal scholars, reform has been painfully slow.

Anthropologist Juan José Martínez, said the legal system was created to serve the oligarchy, and to this day it continues to favor the powerful and the rich. It’s quite common in El Salvador for corrupt politicians and business executives to escape scrutiny because police and prosecutors are overwhelmed with gang violence.

The four gang members were located by authorities in San Pedro Masahuat, but they couldn’t locate Wisper, and it seems they did very little to find him because they needed more details. On consulting a federal database of citizens they learned about a 37-year-old man named Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez, then a week later when checking prison records, prosecutors found another 29-year-old man with the same name.

There were many differences between the two men: they came from different towns, and there was eight years difference in their ages. The younger of the two was a Mara Salvatrucha gang member who had previously been in prison for extortion and was currently wanted in connection with several murders. His name was Jorge Chávez, the same name given to authorities by the victim.

The older of the two men had no criminal record and was known as Jorge Martínez. For some strange reason, prosecutors decided to file charges against 37-year-old Jorge Martínez. Apparently, the witness identified Martínez in a photo lineup, but he also identified the actual criminal in another photo lineup.

In 2015, the real Wisper was accused of killing two men in San Pedro Masahuat and, after a shocking series of mistakes, these charges also contributed to sending the innocent Jorge Alberto Martínez Chávez to his death. Sadly, he had no idea about any of this until April 25, 2016.

According to police, Martínez was stopped at a gas station where he worked because they said he looked suspicious, and they couldn’t believe their luck when they ran his name through a database. They believed they’d found the gang leader Wisper, one of the 100 most sought-after criminals in El Salvador. Martínez was arrested on a single erroneous warrant, but Judge Daniel Ortiz in San Pedro Masahuat tacked on the double murder charges when he heard that Wisper had been caught. It appears he didn’t notice the discrepancies between the two men.

Without seeing Martínez, the judge sent him to jail, which is standard practice in El Salvador because judges have heavy caseloads and often don’t see prisoners until they’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, locked up.

Sadly for Martínez, being locked up meant being thrown into a gang-controlled, disease-ridden police holding cell in the nearby town of San Juan Talpa. No matter how hard he tried, Martínez couldn’t convince anyone of his innocence, even stripping off his shirt to show there were no tattoos on his chest or back.

A simple police line-up should have settled everything, whereby the victim would have to identify Martínez as the man who tried to kill him, but the lineup was twice postponed – the first time because a judge called in sick, and the second time because the prosecutor’s office forgot to arrange transportation for the victim. And then time simply ran out for Martínez. After spending a month in jail without ever having seen a judge, Martínez died on May 25 in a San Salvador hospital.

According to the police report, the cause of death was “suspected tuberculosis,” however the autopsy reported pneumonia. But, police at the San Juan holding cell where Martínez was imprisoned suspect he was poisoned. The theory is that imprisoned gang members sometimes kill non-gang cellmates to ensure they don’t tell tales once they leave jail.

Currently, the Human Rights Office is investigating why Martínez was arrested in the first place, and how he died. When interviewed, Judge Ortiz said it was only after Martínez’s death that he realized there were actually two men with the same name.

“They had almost the exact same characteristics.”

According to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, José Luis Mancía, his officers acted correctly when they detained Martínez, saying there was a warrant for his arrest. However, the address on the warrant belongs to the other man, and subsequently, Wisper is still at large.

Meanwhile, Martínez’s widow, Maritza García, is left to support their two sons on the $15 to $25 a week she earns cleaning a school.

[Featured Image by Luis Romero/AP Images]