Tough anti-gang crackdown popular in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Nine months after President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency to crack down on street gangs, El Salvador has seen more than 1,000 documented human rights violations , about 90 prisoners died in prison. And Bukele’s popularity soared.

For decades, El Salvador’s main street gangs, the Barrio 18 and MS-13, have extorted money from almost everyone and exacted violent revenge on those who didn’t pay. Estimated to number around 70,000 members, these gangs have long controlled vast swaths of territory and practiced extortion and killing with impunity.

Bukele, who was elected in 2019, began sealing off certain sectors of Salvadoran cities earlier this year, surrounding them with police and soldiers who check anyone entering or leaving. Gangs were blamed for 62 killings in a single day on March 26 Finally, Booker asked Congress to grant him extraordinary powers.

More than 60,000 people have been arrested under the measures, which suspend the rights to associate, to be informed of the reasons for the arrest and to see a lawyer. The government can also interfere with calls and emails from anyone it deems suspicious gang members. The period for which someone can be detained without charge has been extended from 3 to 15 days.

Activists say young people are often arrested based on age, appearance or whether they live in gang-dominated slums. Raquel Caballero, the country’s human rights official, said 2,100 people had been arrested and released because they had no ties to street gangs.

But recent polls for Bukeler, who is seeking re-election in 2024, put him and his gang crackdown near 90 percent.

“I don’t care what the international organizations say,” Bukeler said earlier this year, criticizing his measures. “They can come and take gang members. If they want, we’ll give them all.”

Why are Salvadorans enduring the seemingly endless extension of month-long renewals of emergency decrees that restrict constitutional rights and allow police and soldiers wide latitude in searches, arrests and pretrial detention?

Lawyer and political analyst Thanya Pastor said years of unchecked crime and violence left Salvadorans desperate for solutions.

“At this moment, people are not listening to anything about human rights, democracy or authoritarianism. They are interested in their safety and their chance to live a free life,” Pastor said.

The priest said he supported the crackdown. But he said Bukeler’s government must still be held accountable for the abuses and accountable for those who died in custody.

The brutal crackdown appears to have caught street gangs off guard.

“They didn’t expect it, they were caught off guard and almost everyone was rounded up,” said Manuel Torres, who works at a factory near San Jose El Pino in the capital San Salvador, the neighborhood once controlled by MS-13.

Torres looked around worriedly, afraid of being caught talking openly about the gang. “There are still a few left,” he said.

Cristóbal Benítez, a 55-year-old street vendor, said the change has been striking.

“Gangs rule here, their turf is clear. You either pay or they kill you,” Benitez said. “But now, the government seems to be in control again.”

Juan Pappier, acting deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said the idea that “you can succeed on the basis of mass human rights abuses” is wrong, arguing that mass roundups will not dismantle gang structures .

In the face of such criticism, Bukele resisted, writing on his Twitter account: “They fear that we will succeed and that other governments will want to follow suit.”

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