El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele said Friday that police and soldiers have arrested more than 15,000 suspected gang members in under a month in a crackdown seeking to halt surging homicides.
Bukele announced a state of emergency at the end of March following a bloody weekend in which 87 people were killed in gang-related violence.
Since then, the police and military have been rounding up suspected gang members using emergency powers that have done away with the need for arrest warrants.
“More than 15,000 terrorists captured in only 27 days. We continue the War Against Gangs,” the president said on Twitter.
The wave of detentions is unprecedented in a country that has suffered decades of violent crime driven by powerful gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.
These gangs count some 70,000 members, about 26,000 of whom are behind bars, according to authorities.
A CID Gallup poll published Thursday said 78 percent of Salvadorans fully support the fight against gangs.
A state of emergency decreed by Congress at Bukele’s request last month allowed for arrests without warrants and increased sentences for gang membership five-fold to up to 45 years.
Rights groups say innocent people are getting caught up in an indiscriminate roundup.
The emergency law also allows jail terms of up to 15 years for anyone “spreading” gang-related messages in the media, prompting journalists to raise censorship fears.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to the crackdown during a visit to Panama to discuss migration with regional leaders.
“We can tackle violence and crime while also protecting civil rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Blinken.
“El Salvador has experienced setbacks in democratic governance, in the separation of powers, the rule of law. And we look to President Bukele to make progress in addressing some of those setbacks,” he added.
Earlier this month, Bukele hit out at the administration of US President Joe Biden over a perceived lack of support.
The US says it has invested $411 million in improving citizen security and helping El Salvador combat gang violence since 2008.