El Salvador marks its first year under anti-gang crackdown

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The Central American nation of El Salvador marked a full year Monday under anti-gang emergency measures that were originally supposed to last only a month.

It was the the first anniversary of President Nayib Bukele’s request for special powers to pursue gangs last March 27, following a surge in gang violence in which 62 people were killed in a single day.

The country’s legislature has voted every month since then to renew the measures, which suspend some rights.

In the year since, a total of 66,417 people have been arrested, and 4,304 have been released. Rights groups say there have been 111 deaths in custody and 5,802 suspected cases of rights violations.

The emergency decree has reduced violence and proved popular in a country where streets gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have long killed and extorted money from residents.

Jorge Ezequiel Bran, a 25-year-old hotdog vendor in the nation's capital, said he approved of the crackdown, though he acknowledged there have been abuses.

“It's no secret that there have been unjust arrests,” Bran said. “There will always be errors, nothing is perfect, but for me, it (the crackdown) is good.”

Polls suggest over eight of every 10 Salvadorans support the measures.

Recalling last March 27 when the last homicide wave occurred, Bukele wrote in his Twitter account “that was one of the most difficult days of my life.”

Referring to police reports that there were no killings in El Salvador on Sunday, Bukele wrote triumphantly, “Now, a year later, we closed with zero homicides, and March 2023 is on track to be the safest month in our history.”

Under the special powers, police don’t have to tell someone being arrested the reason or inform them of their rights. Someone arrested does not have a right to a lawyer and can be held for 15 days without seeing a judge rather than the previous 72 hours. Telephone lines can be tapped more easily.

Bukele gave no signs he is planning to return to normal police procedures soon. Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro told a local television channel that he thinks the government has yet to arrest “35% of (gang) members.”

The government has used controversial tactics like locking up thousands of gang suspects in a huge new prison built especially for gang members. At other prisons, inmates were crowded together and have seen their food rations reduced.

A recent government video posted on social media showed prisoners forced to run barefoot and handcuffed down stairways and over bare ground, clad only in regulation white shorts. They were then forced to sit with their legs locked in closely clumped groups in cells.

Villatoro denied accusations that Bukele had negotiated with gangs prior to declaring the crackdown. He said that “could not be possible.”

The U.S. Treasury Department alleges Bukele’s government had previously tried to buy the gangs’ support with financial benefits and privileges for their imprisoned leaders, including prostitutes and cellphones.

A coalition of local rights groups say they have documented 111 deaths of suspects in custody, and 5,802 cases of human rights abuses under the state of emergency, including cruel and degrading treatment.

Anabel Belloso, a legislator for the leftist FMLN party, said the crackdown has brought “mass arrests without investigation,” sweeping up “the innocent and the guilty alike.”