In El Salvador, crackdown on gangs is proving popular

SanSalvador – Nine months after President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency to fight street gangs, El Salvador has seen more than 1,000 documented human rights violations and some 90 deaths of detained prisoners. And Bukele’s popularity ratings have skyrocketed.

For decades, El Salvador’s main street gangs, Barrio 18 and the MS-13, extorted money from nearly everyone and violently retaliated against those who didn’t pay. The gangs, estimated to number around 70,000 members, have long controlled large parts of the territory and extorted and killed 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 checking anyone entering or leaving the country. Bukele asked Congress to grant him extraordinary powers after gangs were blamed for 62 murders in just one day, March 26.

More than 60,000 people have been arrested under measures suspending the right to organize, the right to be informed about the reason for arrest and access to a lawyer. The government can also intercept the phone calls and mail of people it considers suspected gang members. The time someone can be held without charge has been extended from three days to 15 days.

Human rights activists say young men are often arrested simply because of their age, their looks or whether they live in a gang-dominated slum. The country’s human rights commissioner, Raquel Caballero, said 2,100 people were released after their arrest because they had no links to the street gangs.

But Bukele, who is seeking re-election in 2024, has gushed in recent polls, showing nearly 90% approval ratings for both himself and his gang’s actions.

“I don’t care what the international organizations say,” Bukele criticized his measures earlier this year. “You can come and take the gang members with you. If they want them, we will give them all.”

Why are Salvadorans enduring seemingly endless renewals of month-long emergency regulations that limit constitutional rights and give police and soldiers wide latitude in searches, arrests and pre-trial detention?

Thanya Pastor, a lawyer and political scientist, says Salvadorans have been desperate for a solution for years of uncontrolled crime and violence.

“People are not going to listen to anything about human rights, democracy or authoritarianism right now. What they care about is their security and the opportunity to live a free life,” Pastor said.

Pastor says he supports the raid. But he says the Bukele government must still be held accountable for abuses and accountable for those who have died in custody.

The brutal crackdown seems to have taken the street gangs by surprise.

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

Torres looked around in concern, afraid of being caught for speaking openly about the gangs. “There are still a few left,” he says.

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

“The gangs ruled here, they had marked their territory well. Either you paid or they killed you,” Benítez said. “But now the government seems to be back in control.”

Juan Pappier, acting assistant director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, said it was a mistake to think that “you can achieve success on the basis of massive human rights abuses,” arguing that mass arrests would not dismantle the organizational structures of gangs.

Bukele responded defiantly to such criticism, writing on his Twitter account: “They are afraid that we will be successful and that other governments will want to copy it.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. In El Salvador, crackdown on gangs is proving popular

Sarah Y. Kim

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