Argentina photo of half naked, bowed prisoners shows tough-on-crime shift

By Lucinda Elliott

(Reuters) - Images of half naked prisoners in Argentina with their hands tied behind their backs have drawn both criticism and praise in the country, with many citing echoes of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's hardline approach to drug gangs and crime.

The governor of Santa Fe province, Maximiliano Pullaro, shared details on Tuesday of a recent police search operation in the Pinero prison complex, where several high-profile drug traffickers are housed.

Argentina's security minister, Patricia Bullrich, on Wednesday shared the images on X and praised the governor's actions. She has previously applauded Bukele's approach to drug-related crime and said she was "interested in adapting the Bukele model" to Argentina.

"They are going to have it worse and worse," Pullaro wrote on his Instagram social media account, alongside a picture of the prisoners with naked torsos and their heads bowed surrounded by guards in military gear.

"Orders come out from the prisons that make life impossible for the people of Santa Fe," the governor added. "We will not back down in the face of threats."

Santa Fe is home to the strategic grains port city of Rosario, which last year recorded one of the highest homicide rates in Argentina as criminal gangs fight over drug territory. Multiple surprise prison inspections have taken place since the conservative governor took office in December.

Argentina's Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights organization, criticized the move: "The humiliation in the prisons of Santa Fe, does not give anyone greater security," the organization responded on Wednesday in a post on X.

Other critics said that the images were reminiscent of the material usually released by El Salvador's Bukele, who has taken his own draconian steps to tackle crime that have lead to allegations of human rights abuses, though have also gained plaudits for helping bring down sky-high crime rates.

Bukele sent his security minister to Buenos Aires for President Javier Milei's inauguration and recently extended his offer of "cooperation" with Argentina "in all things security," on the sidelines of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott; Editing by Alistair Bell)