El Salvador’s president announced on Wednesday he would cordon off sections of towns to search for street gang members, the latest phase of an escalating nine-month crime crackdown.
President Nayib Bukele told a gathering of 14,000 army troops that certain sectors of El Salvador’s cities will be surrounded by police and soldiers, and anyone entering or leaving will be checked. Bukele said such tactics worked in the town of Comasagua in October.
Bukele called it “phase five” of the crackdown, which has imprisoned more than 58,000 people since a state of emergency was declared following a spate of killings in late March.
“Now comes phase five, which is to root out the criminals who still remain in the communities,” Bukele said.
In October, more than 2,000 soldiers and police surrounded and cordoned off Comasagua to search for street gang members accused of murder. Drones flew over the city, and anyone entering or leaving the city was questioned or searched. Fifty suspects were arrested in two days.
“It worked,” Bukele said. The government estimates that homicides fell by 38% in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period of 2021.
Bukele asked Congress to grant him extraordinary powers after gangs were charged with 62 murders on March 26, and that emergency decree has been renewed every month since then. It suspends certain constitutional rights and gives police more powers to arrest and detain suspects.
Under the decree, the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and to have access to a lawyer are suspended. The government can also intervene in the calls and mail of anyone it considers suspicious. The length of time a person can be detained without charge is increased from three to 15 days.
Rights activists say young men are frequently arrested solely because of their age, their appearance or the fact that they live in a gang-dominated slum.
Salvadoran gangs, estimated to have some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long controlled swaths of territory and extort and kill with impunity.
But the Bukele crackdown reached another level earlier this month when the government sent inmates to cemeteries to destroy the graves of gang members at a time of year when families typically visit the graves of their relatives.
Non-governmental organizations have documented several thousand human rights violations and at least 80 deaths in custody of those arrested during the crackdown.
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