El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, declared a state of emergency in March of this year to combat maras (gang) violence. It was extended for an additional 30 days in April. The police and military have arrested 20,421 suspected maras members in just 33 days since the beginning of the state of emergency. The courts have also remanded 9,672 defendants in custody. The state of emergency allows detainees to be held for up to 15 days without justification, as opposed to the 72-hour limit under normal circumstances.
As reported by the newspaper La Razon America, the Salvadoran president is trying to put an end to the flood of murders in recent months and the control that these powerful criminal gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18, exercise in several areas of this small Central American country of 6.4 million inhabitants. The murder of 87 people during the last weekend of March was the last straw for Bukele.
Salvadoran police and military have spent nearly two months arbitrarily arresting “terrorists” without warrants and based on suspicions only. These indications include having a criminal record, tattoos from gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18, or other marero tattoos. The escalation of homicides in recent months is evidence of growing insecurity in the country.
After the most violent days in El Salvador since the end of the civil war 30 years ago (1979-1992), the Salvadoran Congress gave the go-ahead for the suspension of the right to defence, freedom of association and the inviolability of correspondence without a court order. Salvadoran media and security experts explain the drastic increase in violence in the country by the breakdown of a secret pact between the Bukele government and the Salvadoran maras. However, Bukele has always denied the existence of such an agreement.
Nayib Bukele is the president with the highest popular support in the region, with 76% approval according to M&R Consultores. He justified the state of emergency with the estimated 70,000 members of maras who commit crimes and fight among themselves for control of extortion and drug trafficking operations.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International Americas have shown much concern about mass arrests, especially in the areas most controlled by the maras. They have also condemned the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of suspects piled up in El Salvador’s precarious prisons.
Nayib Bukele rejected criticism from these international organisations for alleged human rights violations. He even went so far as to declare that, if they defend the members of the maras so much, they should take them back to their countries. The president is trying to justify the prohibition of graffiti or any other visual expression that explicitly or implicitly conveys messages about the maras that control various areas of the country. The police union has denounced the police chiefs for demanding daily quotas of detainees from their agents in the fight against maras.
Amnesty International has once again rejected the measures imposed by the Salvadoran government that prohibit the media from reproducing and transmitting messages or communiqués from maras that could generate panic in the population. This could lead to imprisonment of journalists solely for reporting on gang-related activities. Amnesty also condemns the fact that prisoners may be held without sufficient food and air and that children between the ages of 12 and 16 may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison without the right to defence.