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HomeCentral AmericaEl SalvadorEl Salvador continues crackdown on gangs as leaders flee to Mexico

El Salvador continues crackdown on gangs as leaders flee to Mexico

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) leaders fled to Mexico to evade the war declared against gangs by President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, where arrests without warrants will be extended for at least another month.

“Many of those chairs (command posts) that are pending (arrests), we know that they are in Mexico, and that from there they are giving instructions in a cowardly manner,” declared the Minister of Justice and Security, Gustavo Villatoro, to the private channel 21 of the local TV.

The official did not explain when they fled the country, nor did he give their identities. The gang is led by 15 members, which is equivalent to the number of letters used to spell Mara Salvatrucha.

“Of those 15 members that governed the structure, the 31 programs (divisions) that the MS has at the national level, seven of those members are already behind bars,” he emphasized.

The gang’s 15-member board of directors is known as the “Ranfla Nacional. According to Villatoro, the gang has 31 sub-chiefs across the country, which have 434 “clicas” (cells) under their command, each with a leader called a “palabrero.

Arrest without Warrants Extension Approved

This Tuesday, at the government’s request, the Congress approved the extension for the third time and for 30 days more of an exception regime in force since March, which allows arrests without warrants.

The measure was approved by a large majority in the Parliament controlled by Bukele’s allies.

“A gang member in a community is like a cancer cell, and we have to apply chemotherapy. We are not going to rest until the last gang member in our territory has been captured,” Villatoro told the Parliament when requesting the extension of the emergency regime.

While the extension was being discussed in Parliament, President Bukele announced on his Twitter account the beginning of the construction of the “Terrorism Confinement Center”: a gigantic prison to lock up the thousands of gang members arrested in recent weeks.

“There are many factors that must come out well and on time in order to win the war against gangs, and the construction of a gigantic penitentiary center is one of those factors,” the president said.

Bukele released a video with men and machinery at work and explained that the facility will have “hundreds of thousands of meters of construction, several levels of walls and 37 watchtowers,” which “will make it impossible to escape” from the prison.

In an interview on Tuesday, Villatoro explained that the prison is being built in a rural area of the town of Tecoluca, in the central department of San Vicente, some 75 km southeast of San Salvador. It will have capacity for 20,000 inmates. 

The murder of 87 people between March 25 and 27, in crimes attributed to gangs, led Congress to declare a state of emergency at Bukele’s request.

Since the end of March, 41,846 suspected gang members have been arrested, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Parliament has also increased penalties for gang-related crimes.

El Salvador is primarily home to the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Before the government’s onslaught, some 16,000 of their members were incarcerated.

But with the arrests of the last three months, 57,846 members are now behind bars, 83% of the 70,000 members officially considered to exist in the country.

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