El Salvador’s congress has voted to approve yet another extension of emergency rules allowing police to round up suspected members of street gangs.
The vote late Wednesday was widely expected, and marks the 12th such one-month extension granted to President Nayib Bukele since the measure was first approved on March 27, 2022.
The crackdown has resulted in over 65,000 arrests and thousands of alleged rights abuses, but remains popular in a country where gangs once demanded protection payments with impunity.
Opinion polls suggest that about 9 out of 10 Salvadorans approve of the government’s anti-crime strategy.
The extension came on the same day the government sent 2,000 more suspects to a huge new prison built especially for gang members Wednesday, and the justice minister vowed that “they will never return” to the streets.
The government announced the mass inmate transfer with a slickly produced video posted on social media. It showed prisoners forced to run barefoot and handcuffed down stairways and over bare ground, clad only in regulation white shorts. They were then forced to sit with their legs locked in closely clumped groups in cells.
“What, are they saying the darned dictatorship didn’t give the prisoners tuxedos? Shoeless? Right now we’ll take money away from the children’s hospitals to buy them shoes! What brand do you think they would like?” Bukele wrote.
Gustavo Villatoro, the government’s minister for justice and peace, said Wednesday the suspected gang members would never return to the streets, even though about 57,000 of those arrested are still awaiting formal charges or a trial.
“They are never going to return to the communities, the neighborhoods, the barrios, the cities of our beloved El Salvador,” Villatoro said.
Only about 3,500 people swept up in the crackdown have been released so far.
Human rights groups say that there have been many instances of prisoner abuses and that innocent people have been swept up in police raids.
The local rights group Cristosal documented 3,344 cases of human rights abuses in the first 11 months of the state of emergency. Most of the abuses involved arbitrary arrest; relatives claim young men are rounded up based on their appearance, or because they live in low-income neighborhoods.
There have also been complaints about inadequate medical treatment in prisons.