Authorities in El Salvador have arrested more than 9,000 suspected gang members in the past 15 days, President Nayib Bukele announced Sunday, amid a state of emergency pushed by the president after a spike in homicides.
“More than 9,000 gang members (arrested) in just 15 days. We continue the war against gangs,” tweeted the president, who has been criticized by local and international humanitarian organizations for alleged human rights violations.
For its part, the National Civil Police (PNC) reported on Twitter that “507 terrorists” were captured on Saturday. Since the beginning “of the war against gangs, we have put a total of 9,120 gang members behind bars,” it said.
From March 25-27 in El Salvador 87 people were killed in a wave of violence, prompting the police and military to begin mass arrests.
On March 27 the pro-government Congress approved a state of emergency that gives legal cover to arrests without warrants.
In addition, Congress approved, at Bukele’s request, reforms to increase the maximum sentence for gang membership from nine to 45 years in prison, and to punish the dissemination of gang messages in the media with up to 15 years in prison.
On Sunday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized another measure, criminalizing reporting on some gang activities.
“The law lends itself to attempts to censor the media, prevent reporting on corruption and other matters of public interest, and silence critics of the Salvadoran government,” he said.
The United States, he continued, was “deeply concerned by the spike in violence and homicides committed by the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador on March 25, 26, and 27.”
“Gangs pose a threat to the national security of El Salvador and the United States. We urge El Salvador to address this threat while also protecting vital civil liberties, including freedom of the press, due process, and freedom of speech.”
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs, among others, total some 70,000 members.
As of March 16,000 of them were in prison.
El Salvador closed 2021 with 1,147 homicides — 18 per 100,000 inhabitants — while in 2020 it registered 1,341 violent deaths.