El Salvador falters as 6,000 people arrested in unprecedented crackdown | Global development
Distraught families across El Salvador are seeking information on the fate of their loved ones after nearly 6,000 people were arrested in an unprecedented security crackdown last week.
Men, women and children have been arrested across the Central American country since the government declared a state of emergency on March 27, suspending constitutional rights including the presumption of innocence.
President Nayib Bukele, an authoritarian populist who uses Twitter to announce policies and denounce his enemies, said the detainees are all gang members and will not be released.
A state of emergency was declared after three days of violence that resulted in 87 deaths, which Bukele attributed to Mara Salvatrucha’s gang known as MS-13.
While police say they captured the MS-13 leaders who ordered the killings, there is growing evidence that ordinary people living or working in gang-dominated neighborhoods have been arbitrarily arrested.
In the capital, San Salvador, hundreds of wives and mothers gathered in front of a navy base that houses one of the largest police detention cells. Vans loaded with handcuffed inmates arrived throughout the week as members of an evangelical church handed out small cups of sherbet to tearful relatives camped out in the scorching sun.
Carmen Rodríguez, 33, doesn’t know why her husband, brother and nephew were arrested a week ago as they unloaded a truck of used clothes for their business at the city’s main market in the historic center.
“When we asked the police why they were taking them, they just insulted us,” said Rodríguez, who is struggling to find the money to pay for the meals. “They take the righteous for sinners. It is good that the police do their job, but it is unfair that they also take the workers away and, worse still, that they treat them like animals, “he said.
Bukele last week announced on Twitter that food for gang inmates would be rationed to feed new inmates as he was unwilling to take money from the education budget to feed the “terrorists”.
The 30-day state of emergency allows inmates to be held for 15 days – instead of the usual three – without access to a defense attorney and without prosecutors having to file a lawsuit before a judge. The decree, which also allows the police to search cell phones and messages, could be extended.
The National Assembly, which is controlled by Bukele’s allies, also passed legislation that increases prison sentences for minors and allowed indefinite pre-trial detention for suspected gang members.
Zaira Navas, lawyer of the Salvadoran group for human rights Cristosal, said: “The detainees have lost the right to defense and do not have the right to know the reasons for their arrest”.
Despite the broad scope of the new emergency powers, reports suggest that other constitutional rights are also being violated.
Rosa López said police forcibly entered her home in Santa Tecla in the La Libertad region on Saturday March 26 and arrested her 20-year-old cousin who suffers from heart problems. She should have entrusted him with a lawyer and appeared in court after three days as he was arrested the day before the state of emergency, but he remains in solitary confinement.
“The police didn’t ask for it, they just went into the house and took him away. That day they were crazy, they caught everyone … It’s terrible what they are doing to him and to us. Not only is it unfair, it is also illegal, “said López, 26.
The crackdown is popular with many voters who are fed up with gangs, but it has led to the blockade of entire neighborhoods.
At a military checkpoint one afternoon last week in Santa Tecla, AK-47 armed soldiers examined vehicles and checked people’s ID cards and proof of address before letting them in or out of the neighborhood. Anyone deemed suspicious was forced to undress so the troops could check for gang-related tattoos.
Only those who are believed to have a legitimate reason to be around could pass.
“Builders and informal workers cannot leave. They are locked up, prisoners. Luckily I have a formal job as well [my employer] issued a letter. But if we want to go shopping after work, we can’t. There’s nothing we can do, “said a 35-year-old woman who preferred not to say her name.
Astrid Valencia, Central American researcher at Amnesty International, said: “We are alarmed not only by the fact that the measures suspend key elements of due process, but also by President Bukele’s conflicting speech, which stigmatizes and attacks human rights defenders, civil society organizations, international NGOs and independent media for expressing their concerns about these measures ”.
Bukele has taken an increasingly combative stance with anyone daring to question his government and recently claimed that human rights NGOs, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations – that provides grants to NGOs and independent media in El Salvador – they are gang mates.
Even before the mass arrests, El Salvador had one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the world, with around a quarter of inmates in pre-trial detention.
While he was mayor of San Salvador, Bukele claimed to support society-led crime prevention and rehabilitation programs to address the intractable gang violence in the country. Since he came to power in 2019, he’s been back the same way steady hand or repressive tactics from previous governments, while at the same time secretly negotiating a truce with gang leaders, according to the United States.
Bukele denies the allegations, but the phones of reporters reporting on the negotiated truce were hacked using Israeli spyware.
The names of the victims and their relatives have been changed