El Salvador’s Latest Gang Crackdown Includes Human Rights Violations
Amid a wide-reaching government crackdown on organized criminal groups in the country, almost 2 percent of El Salvador’s adult population has been detained and at least 18 people have died in police custody, according to a new report from the human rights group Amnesty International.
The crackdown was initiated by President Nayib Bukele in March. It is aimed at suspected members of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, and Barrio 18, both of which are street gangs that emerged in El Salvador following waves of mass deportations of Salvadoran immigrants from the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.
In addition to reports of arbitrary detentions, torture, and inhumane conditions in now-overcrowded prisons, the government has also reportedly targeted journalists, activists and even judicial officials, amounting to what Amnesty International is describing as “massive human rights violations.” According to Amnesty International’s report, El Salvador’s government has made arrests without “administrative or judicial arrest warrant[s]” and without catching defendants in the act of committing a crime; rather, arrests are based on a defendant’s prior criminal record or because they live in a community with a large gang population. Many arrestees have been denied access to legal representation and are held for weeks before seeing a judge.
The U.S. government, which has long played a role in El Salvador’s organized crime problem, has remained relatively silent. Barring one statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 10, and one answer by Blinken to a question at a press conference in Panama City on April 20, U.S. diplomatic institutions have largely responded with silence toward these reports. In neither statement did Blinken acknowledge how these gangs came to hold such sway in El Salvador, instead restating previous U.S. support of the Salvadoran government. “We continue to support El Salvador in its efforts to reduce the proliferation of gangs. Since 2008, we have invested $411 million to improve citizen security and help the Salvadoran government combat gang violence,” Blinken said in his April 10 statement.
“It’s ironic, because you could argue that 20 to 30 years later, the U.S. is now reaping the results of very mistaken policy from the 1980s,” says Harry Vanden, professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of South Florida and a leading expert on Central American gang violence. In Vanden’s view, a combination of heavy-handed U.S. interventions in support of El Salvador’s right-wing military junta during the 1980s and U.S. deportations of Salvadorans to an economically impoverished country just out of the throes of civil war set the stage for s
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