6,000 people were arrested in an unprecedented crackdown in El Salvador

Photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images


Distraught families across El Salvador are searching for information on the fate of their loved ones after almost 6,000 people were arrested in an unprecedented security crackdown over the past week.

Men, women and children have been rounded up across the Central American country since the government declared a state of emergency on 27 March, suspending constitutional rights including the presumption of innocence.

President Nayib Bukele, an authoritarian populist who uses Twitter to announce policies and denounce his enemies, has said that the detainees are all gang members and that they will not be released.

Related: El Salvador locks down prisons after wave of 87 killings over weekend

The state of emergency was declared after three days of violence left 87 dead, which Bukele blamed on the Mara Salvatrucha gang known as MS-13.

While the police claim to have captured the MS-13 leaders who ordered the killings, there is mounting evidence that ordinary people who live or work in gang-dominated neighbourhoods have been arrested arbitrarily.

In the capital, San Salvador, hundreds of wives and mothers have been gathering outside a navy base that houses one the largest police holding cells. Vans loaded with handcuffed detainees arrived throughout the week as members of an evangelical church handed out small cups of sherbet to tearful relatives camped out in the baking sun.

Carmen Rodríguez, 33, does not know why her husband, brother and nephew were arrested a week ago while unloading a truck of secondhand clothes for their business at the city’s main market in the historic quarter.

“When we asked the police why they were taking them, they just insulted us,” said Rodríguez, who is struggling to find the money to pay for their meals. “They are taking the righteous for sinners. It is good for the police to do their job, but it is unfair that they also take away working people – and even worse that they treat them like animals,” she said.



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