El Salvador expands emergency powers to fight gangs

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A soldier patrols the 22 de Abril neighborhood after El Salvador’s Congress on Sunday approved emergency powers that temporarily suspended some constitutional protections after the Central American country recorded a sharp rise in killings attributed to criminal gangs, in San Salvador, Soyapango, March 29, 2022.REUTERS / José Cabezas

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SAN SALVADOR, April 24 (Reuters) – El Salvador’s Congress on Sunday approved a month-long extension of emergency measures that rights groups say undermine civil liberties, but which President Nayib Bukele says , are needed after a wave of gang killings.

The measures, which enact emergency powers to limit certain constitutional rights, came into effect late last month after the Central American country recorded 62 killings in one day – the highest toll in two decades .

Since then, authorities said they have arrested more than 16,000 suspected gang members. Human rights organizations said the detentions included arbitrary arrests of non-gang members and abuse of authority.

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“The number of abuses committed during these 30 days is incalculable, mainly due to the fear of victims and relatives to report them,” human rights lawyer Celia Medrano told reporters.

Bukele said last month that emergency powers would only be used when necessary and life would go on as normal for the “vast majority” of people.

The measures authorize restrictions on freedom of assembly and the inviolability of correspondence and communications, as well as an extension of administrative detention.

Since the measures were implemented, lawmakers have also voted to approve substantial increases in prison terms for gang leaders and members.

“We will chase them until they are brought to justice. We want a country without gangs,” Defense Minister Rene Merino told reporters.

In 2015, El Salvador recorded 103 homicides per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the world for the country of some 6.5 million people.

That rate has steadily declined since Bukele took office in 2019. Police data shows 1,140 homicides were committed last year, 15% fewer than the year before.

But critics say Bukele’s administration has been marked by a rollback of democracy as he has sought to consolidate his control over the legislature and judiciary.

His government has also been accused of brokering a pact with the two main gangs, offering members better prison conditions, money and other benefits in exchange for lower homicide rates and support from the government. Bukele’s party in the legislative elections.

He has repeatedly denied these accusations.

The United States said this month it was concerned about the spike in killings and called on El Salvador to tackle the problem while protecting civil liberties.

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Reporting by Nelson Renteria, writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Robert Birsel

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