A soldier checks the identification of youths on the main street of La Campanera neighborhood in Soyapango, El Salvador, Sunday, March 5, 2023. Here in La Campanera, once one of the most bloody neighborhoods of the country, police and soldiers demand men strip off their shirts to examine their bodies for tattoos, and flip through deeds or energy bills for any evidence to show they weren’t part of Barrio 18, the gang that once dominated the zone. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has called on El Salvador to restore all the rights suspended under an “emergency” anti-gang decree, which the government said Wednesday it wants to extend for yet another month.
The commission, an arm of the Organization of American States, expressed concern about special powers to tap phones and detain people for extended periods. It also expressed concern about thousands of reported rights abuses, many related to arbitrary arrest.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele asked the country’s congress Wednesday to again extend the emergency decree to continue the crackdown on gangs, which is widely popular among Salvadorans. Congress has voted to renew the emergency powers a dozen times, bringing the crackdown into its second year.
It was originally imposed on March 27, 2022, and more than 67,000 people have been imprisoned under the crackdown on street gangs.
“This security measure has helped transform the country,” Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said in a request for the extension. “Homicides have dropped significantly ... Without doubt, we are on the right track.”
For decades, street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 essentially ruled poor neighborhoods in El Salvador, killing and extorting money from people of all walks of life.
Villatoro said the measures would remain in place until “the last gang member” is arrested.
The anti-gang emergency measures were originally supposed to last only a month, following a surge in gang violence in which 62 people were killed in a single day.
In the year since, a total of about 67,000 people have been arrested, and 4,304 have been released. Rights groups say there have been 111 deaths in custody and 5,802 suspected cases of rights violations.
Polls suggest over eight of every 10 Salvadorans support the measures.
Under the special powers, police don’t have to tell someone being arrested the reason or inform them of their rights. Someone arrested does not have a right to a lawyer and can be held for 15 days without seeing a judge rather than the previous 72 hours. Telephone lines can be tapped more easily.
The government has used controversial tactics like locking up thousands of gang suspects in a huge new prison built especially for gang members. At other prisons, inmates were crowded together and have seen their food rations reduced.
A recent government video posted on social media 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.
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