For almost five months now, the Government of El Salvador, led by Nayib Bukele, has been carrying out large-scale police and military operations that have led to the arrest of around 50,000 suspected members of the maras.
This is an outstanding figure for a country of less than 6.5 million inhabitants, but it does not seem so high when compared to its rate of violence – around 100 murders per month – and of criminals associated with the maras. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 active members of the maras, of which the majority belong to the Mara Salvatrucha and, to a lesser extent, to Barrio 18 (18th Street). These are the two major criminal groups that were born in the 1980s in the wake of the civil war and the exodus of thousands of refugees to the United States.
These operations have prompted reactions from the Ombudsman for the Defence of Human Rights and civil organizations. They believe that the veil of darkness that covers this anti-violence crusade hides arbitrary arrests, abuses of power and the clear suspicion that some of those imprisoned have not committed the crimes of which they are accused.
At the beginning of September there were more than 3,000 complaints of torture and indiscriminate arrests, as well as 56 prisoners killed, about which the government has maintained total secrecy. Even Amnesty International believes that serious human rights violations have occurred and that there could be international criminal responsibility.
But it seems that none of that concerns the Government of Nayib Bukele. In March, the Legislative Assembly approved the application of the state of exception and the suspension of constitutional guarantees for one month, but it has been in effect for several months.
The government assumes that around 1% of the arrests could be mistaken. And not everyone wears tattoos of the maras on their skin. However, the Workers’ Movement of the National Police also denounces the existence of quotas enforced by some security forces commanders in order to obtain holidays or avoid reprimands. For example, if a police station is required to detain six members of the maras and they have only been able to capture four, they add two detainees for another crime, regardless of whether it was an assault or a robbery.
The state of exception was imposed at the end of March, after a weekend full of murders: 87 in total. According to police, the victims were either chosen at random by gunmen or came between their revolvers and semi-automatic rifles.
Bukele decided to nip this situation in the bud. The state of exception allows the police to extend detentions beyond 72 hours, including placing detainees in limbo with no expiration date, monitoring private communications and suspending the right to legal assistance by the State. In addition, El Salvador has tightened the penal code with the approval of Parliament: a member of a mara of legal age can face up to 45 years in prison.
Until March, the country was experiencing a serious overcrowding problem, with 36,000 prisoners in confinement. That figure has now doubled. Prison overcrowding is suffocating, and logistics cannot be sustained.