El Salvador extends state of emergency to curb gang violence

·2-min read
El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele requested a one-month extension to the country's state of emergency to curb gang violence, which was approved by lawmakers (AFP/Marvin RECINOS) (Marvin RECINOS)

El Salvador's lawmakers on Sunday extended a state of emergency for another month at the request of President Nayib Bukele, after it was imposed in late March to stamp out a wave of deadly gang violence.

The measures were initially enacted March 27 after a weekend in which 87 people were killed in gang-related violence, expanding police powers so that they could arrest members without a warrant.

Since then, more than 16,000 people have been arrested, and Bukele on Sunday requested lawmakers to extend the state of emergency for another month.

After summoning members to a session, Ernesto Castro, president of the Legislative Assembly -- controlled by Bukele's ruling party -- declared that they had approved the extension, by 67 out of 84 votes.

The new decree states that "security conditions persist which urgently demand the extension... due to the continuation of the circumstances which motivated it," he said.

Once Bukele signs the decree, the extension begins on Tuesday.

Besides arrests without a warrant, the emergency measures also restrict freedom of assembly, while telephone calls and emails can be intercepted without a court order.

Also on Sunday, they approved another law to "simplify and facilitate" the acquisition of tax-free goods and render services by the government to address the emergency.

The authorities have said they are planning to build new prisons to hold the thousands of gang members they detain.

- Crackdown -

Bukele hailed the extension, calling it "the definition of democracy."

"More than 1,000 terrorists captured on this day alone. More than 17,000 in just 30 days," he tweeted. "We continue... #WarAgainstGangs."

The wave of detentions is unprecedented in a country that has suffered decades of violent crime driven by powerful gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

The country's gangs have about 70,000 members, of whom 32,000 are now incarcerated as a result of the crackdown, according to authorities.

Lawmakers had also approved in early April a reform to punish gang members with up to 45 years in prison -- a sharp increase to the original maximum penalty of nine years.

Other legislation also approved this month criminalizes disseminating gang-related messages in the media, with penalties of up to 15 years in jail. Journalists have warned that this reform could target certain forms of reporting.

El Salvadoran NGOs asked the judiciary this week to declare that legislation unconstitutional.

Such broad and swift enactment of powers granted to the military and police has drawn alarm from local and international human rights organizations.

The 40-year-old president, elected in 2019, enjoys broad support in El Salvador over his promises to fight organized crime and improve security in the violence-wracked country.


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