SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Security forces on Tuesday stepped up operations against El Salvador’s street gangs with mass arrests, neighborhood cordons and house-to-house searches under a state of emergency that has raised concerns among some organizations it could open the door to human rights abuses.
Rather than back down under mounting criticism, President Nayib Bukele appeared ready to double down, announcing Tuesday night that he had asked the president of Congress to summon lawmakers to give him more legal tools to tackle gangs.
The country’s relatively low homicide rate under Bukele’s administration had been one of his most vaunted achievements. Although some have questioned how it was obtained, the country has lived in peace compared to previous periods of bloodshed.
That changed last weekend when 89 people were killed in four days, down from 79 in February. Congress passed Bukele’s state of emergency early Sunday, giving authorities broad leeway to make arrests and extend prison terms while investigations are carried out.
Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado told state television that in the past two days nearly 1,500 suspected gang members have been captured “without firing a single shot”.
Only two murders were confirmed on Monday compared to 62 on Saturday.
“I was a victim of the gangs, I paid them off (extortion),” said Esteban Maravilla, who works in transport. “They should lock them all up.”
Bukele enjoys extremely high popularity in El Salvador, but some heavy-handed tactics have come under criticism.
Opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations say the security forces are going even beyond their newly enhanced powers.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday that the government should confront gang violence, but respect rights. “Instead of protecting Salvadorans, this widespread state of emergency is a recipe for disaster that puts their rights at risk,” the organization said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has condemned measures that keep gang members incarcerated in their cells 24 hours a day and reduce their diet to two meals a day.
“The measures implemented in prisons constitute policies of a repressive nature that can lead to serious violations of the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty,” the commission said.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said on Tuesday that the Secretary-General was concerned about the sharp increase in gang killings and hoped that the government’s actions would be in line with international law and standards. matters of human rights.
Bukele responded via Twitter that organizations criticizing his actions had done nothing to help El Salvador fight the gangs.
Eduardo Escobar, director of the local non-governmental organization Citizen Action, noted that the state of emergency did not include restrictions on mobility, but that security forces surrounded certain neighborhoods, controlling who entered and who was going out.
On Tuesday, at an entrance to the San Jose El Pino neighborhood in Santa Tecla near the capital, soldiers wearing masks and armed with guns blocked everyone from entering and leaving, searched cars and backpacks and demanded identity documents. They refused access to an Associated Press reporter.
“I have my work card and my (ID) and I haven’t had any problems, but they are searching everything, everything,” Héctor Flores said near a military barricade. “The soldiers and the police came in on Sunday evening and went from house to house. I believe they took them all (gang members), but they are still looking.”
National lawmaker Claudia Ortiz of the conservative Vamos party said: “Free transport was not limited (in a state of emergency) and there are already citizens who denounce the encirclement of neighborhoods.”
William Soriano, a New Ideas party lawmaker in Bukele, suggested the spike in killings may have been a message from the gangs after the government took control of two bus routes in the capital earlier this month. Gangs are extorting transport companies and drivers, and the government’s takeover of nearly 300 vehicles has cut a source of revenue.
“Coincidentally, after they intervened on certain public transportation routes that function as a means of laundering money for gangs, as a source of income for gangs…this spike is happening,” Soriano said. “That means they hit the pockets of the gangs directly.”
The state of emergency could last 30 days and possibly be extended.
Bukele railed against politicians in previous administrations who allegedly made pacts with street gangs to reduce killings in exchange for benefits for their imprisoned leaders. The president has vehemently denied that his administration made a similar deal.