Pressure to make arrests as El Salvador extends gang crackdown

Wilfredo Gutierrez had planned a quick run to a store near his home in Soyapango, on the outskirts of San Salvador, when he encountered a soldier. “Shut up and turn towards the wall,” the 38-year-old call centre worker says the soldier instructed him that night on April 8.

It was around 9pm, Gutierrez recalls, and many of his neighbours were soon standing next to him, their hands cinched with the same plastic ties.

“Why are they saying that they want more?” Gutierrez remembers asking himself about the conversations he overheard between the heavily armed members of the Salvadoran military. In total, 21 men including Gutierrez were handed off to the police, the only institution with the power to carry out arrests in El Salvador.

“Just because the state has given them the authority, they think that they can supposedly do whatever they want and no one can say anything,” Gutierrez told Al Jazeera in an interview.

The arrests came amid a sweeping anti-gang crackdown that began in late March in response to a spike in homicides.

President Nayib Bukele and his party have defended their response – including the use of a “state of exception” that suspends certain civil liberties – as necessary and successful in the fight against gang violence, which the Central American country has long grappled with.

“Why are they saying that they want more?” Gutierrez remembers asking himself about the conversations he overheard between the heavily armed members of the Salvadoran military. In total, 21 men including Gutierrez were handed off to the police, the only institution with the power to carry out arrests in El Salvador.

“Just because the state has given them the authority, they think that they can supposedly do whatever they want and no one can say anything,” Gutierrez told Al Jazeera in an interview.

The arrests came amid a sweeping anti-gang crackdown that began in late March in response to a spike in homicides.

President Nayib Bukele and his party have defended their response – including the use of a “state of exception” that suspends certain civil liberties – as necessary and successful in the fight against gang violence, which the Central American country has long grappled with.

The president’s office, the National Police and the ministry of justice and public security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the quotas. A police spokesperson denied the existence of quotas in a statement to the Reuters news agency this month, saying that such an order is considered a serious offence and urging staff to report it.

As of May 25, the National Police said more than 34,500 people had been arrested for alleged gang ties and other gang-related offences, such as extortion. Bukele has said there are an estimated 70,000 gang members in El Salvador, and on Wednesday, the legislature voted to extend the state of exception for another 30 days to continue the government’s “war” on gangs.

 

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