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El Salvador grabs 1,000 gang suspects in response to weekend killings

Military guard a custody center in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday.
Anadolu Agency
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Military guard a custody center in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The government of El Salvador said Monday it has arrested more than 1,000 gang suspects after a wave of killings over the weekend.

President Nayib Bukele ordered food for gang members held in Salvadoran prisons be reduced to two meals per day, seized inmates' mattresses and posted a video of prisoners being frog-marched through corridors and down stairs.

The government declared a state of emergency and locked down prisons after 87 murders were committed Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Authorities have blamed the killings on gang members, and on Monday authorities said soldiers and police had raided gang strongholds around San Salvador.

Bukele wrote that those detained would not be released. His order that food for gang inmates be cut apparently was aimed at stretching current food supplies to feed the new detainees as well.

"Don't think they are going to be set free," Bukele wrote in his Twitter account. "We are going to ration the same food we are giving now (to inmates)."

"And if the international community is worried about their little angels, they should come and bring them food, because I am not going to take budget money away from the schools to feed these terrorists," the president wrote.

Bukele also posted a video showing guards with billy clubs roughly forcing inmates to walk, run and even descend stairs with their arms held behind their necks or backs.

At one point, a handcuffed inmate tumbles down a flight of stairs as a guard forces him to descend running. The prisoner groans and then is forced to his feet to continue running.

The inmates were stripped to their underwear, and their mattresses were taken away.

El Salvador's congress granted Bukele's request to declare a state of emergency early Sunday amid the wave of 87 gang-related killings over the weekend. By comparison, there were 79 homicides in the entire month of February.

The state of emergency suspends constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and loosen arrest rules for as much as thirty days, but could be extended. The decree allows suspects to be detained without a lawyer for up to 15 days, and allows police to search cell phones and messages.

The homicides appeared linked to the country's notorious street gangs, who effectively control many neighborhoods in the capital. The National Police reported they have captured five leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, who they claimed ordered the weekend killings.

Bukele previously ordered the head of the country's prisons to carry out an immediate 24/7 lockdown of gang inmates in their cells.

"They are not to go out even to the patio" of prisons, Bukele wrote, adding "a message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your homeboys will not see even one ray of sunlight."

Bukele's tough attitude on crime is likely to find few critics in El Salvador.

"This is unbearable. The gangs kill whenever they want, they do whatever they want. They have to be punished, and very hard," said Mario Alas, 39, as he got off a commuter bus in San Salvador, the capital.

Capital resident Juana Sánchez, 55, complained, "Nothing happens to them, they put them in jail for a while and fatten them up, and when they get out they get out they continue to prey on people, taking their money and killing them."

But the country's enormously powerful street gangs have proved a double-edged sword for Bukele.

"We must remind the people of El Salvador that what is happening now is due to the negligence of those who protected criminals," the conservative Arena party said in a statement.

That was an apparent reference to a December report by the U.S. Treasury Department that said Bukele's government secretly negotiated a truce with leaders of the gangs. That contradicted Bukele's denials and raised tensions between the two nations.

The U.S government alleges Bukele's government bought the gangs' support with financial benefits and privileges for their imprisoned leaders including prostitutes and cellphones. Bukele has vehemently denied the accusations.

The explosive accusations cuts to the heart of one of Bukele's most highly touted successes in office: a plunge in the country's homicide rate.

The revelations are not the first time that Bukele's disdain for legal niceties have raised tensions with the Biden administration. After the new congress removed the attorney general and the justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court in May, the U.S. government expressed concern over the direction of the country.

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would shift aid from government agencies in El Salvador to non-governmental organizations.

El Salvador's new attorney general in June announced the government was canceling the Organization of American States' anti-corruption mission in the Central American country.

Bukele enjoys extremely high popularity. He stepped into a political vacuum left by discredited traditional parties from the left and right.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]