After months of relative calm and fairly low levels of street violence, murders have increased again to levels not seen for almost 30 years in the Central American country. It could be said that the fragile truce of the gangs has come to an end.
As a consequence of this situation, a few weeks ago the Legislative Assembly approved a controversial request from the Executive to combat the gangs, aimed at reforming the penal code to toughen sentences against gang members.
As reported by bbc.com in an article, the measure comes after the government of Nayib Bukele asked the Assembly to declare a state of emergency in the country, after more than 80 murders took place during one weekend alone.
The laws, which for the time being will be implemented for one month, although they may be extended, include the suspension of freedom of association, the right to an attorney and the right to secrecy of correspondence. Currently, with the recently approved reform, gang members can be sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison, while the leaders of these groups can receive a sentence of between 40 and 45 years in prison.
With regard to one of the most controversial points, the reform of the Penal Code also includes considering members of these groups over the age of 12 as adults – and judging them as such. This would be the first time that the government approves a specific penalty for those it considers gang members. Previously, in El Salvador these members were considered “terrorists” and were prosecuted under this category, although it was difficult to prove their participation in these groups, and sentences ranged from six to nine years in prison.
In this vein, the government has strengthened security in the streets and has requested in Congress to approve the state of emergency. The measure, approved by the ruling majority in the Legislative Assembly, limits freedom of association, suspends the right to be informed of the reasons for detention, extends the period of detention from 72 hours to 15 days and allows authorities to tap the mobile phones of those they deem suspicious.
According to the latest information, the authorities had arrested more than 3,000 suspected gang members. In parallel, President Bukele announced via Twitter that he had ordered to limit food and trips to the courtyard for imprisoned gang members and that their bed mattresses had been taken away. For several days, food has been rationed and the 16,000 imprisoned members have not left their cells.
Among the various reactions to the recent events, it is worth mentioning those of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, which showed their concern for the situation in the country and trust that the measures being taken are in line with international human rights laws and standards.
It is worth noting that approximately 70,000 gang members operate in El Salvador and fight for control of extortion and drug operations throughout the Central American country.