El Salvador extends state of emergency

The Associated Press
Soldiers man a checkpoint at the entrance to the Las Palmas Community, a neighborhood that is supposed to be under the control of Barrio 18 Gang in San Salvador, on March 27.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador’s congress voted Sunday to grant a request by President Nayib Bukele to extend an anti-gang emergency decree for another 30 days.

The measure was approved with 67 votes in the 84-seat congress, where Bukele’s party holds a majority.

Bukele has used emergency powers to round up about 16,000 suspected gang members following a spate of killings in March.

Rights groups have criticized the measures, saying arrests are often arbitrary, based on a person’s appearance or where they live.

The original 30-day state of emergency approved in late March restricts the right to gather, to be informed of rights and have access to a lawyer. It extends to 15 days the time that someone can be held without charges.

It came after a spate of homicides in late March, when gangs were blamed for 62 killings in a single weekend, a level of violence the country of 6.5 million people has not seen in years.

Bukele has also established a raft of other measures. Among other things, they lengthened sentences, reduced the age of criminal responsibility to 12.

El Salvador’s congress has authorized prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for news media that reproduce or disseminate messages from the gangs, alarming press freedom groups.

Gang members held at Salvadoran prisons have been put on reduced food rations, denied mattresses and frog-marched around.

Rights groups have expressed concerns that innocent people are being caught up in sweeps targeting the notorious violent street gangs.

Gangs control swaths of territory through brutality and fear. They have driven thousands to emigrate to save their own lives or the lives of their children who are forcibly recruited.

The gangs’ power is strongest in El Salvador’s poorest neighborhoods, where the state has long been absent. They are a drain on the economy, extorting money from even the lowest earners and forcing businesses that can’t or won’t pay to close.