SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador >> The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off a town on the outskirts of the nation’s capital Saturday to search for gang members.
The operation was one of the largest mobilizations yet in President Nayib Bukele’s nine-month-old crackdown on street gangs that long extorted money from businesses and ruled many neighborhoods of the capital, San Salvador.
The troops blocked roads going in and out of the township of Soyapango, checking people’s documents. Special teams went into the town looking for gang suspects.
“Starting now, the township of Soyapango is completely surrounded,” Bukele wrote in his Twitter account. He posted videos showing ranks of rifle-toting soldiers.
More than 58,000 people have been jailed since a state of emergency was declared following a wave of homicides in late March. Rights groups have criticized the mass roundups, saying they often sweep up young men based on their appearance or where they live.
It was part of what Bukele had called in late November “Phase Five” of the crackdown. Bukele said such tactics worked in the town of Comasagua in October.
In October, more than 2,000 soldiers and police surrounded and closed off Comasagua in order to search for street gang members accused in a killing. Drones flew over the town, and everyone entering or leaving the town was questioned or searched. About 50 suspects were detained in two days.
“It worked,” Bukele said. The government estimates that homicides dropped 38% in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period of 2021.
Bukele requested Congress grant him extraordinary powers after gangs were blamed for 62 killings on March 26, and that emergency decree has been renewed every month since then. It suspends some Constitutional rights and gives police more powers to arrest and hold suspects.
Under the decree, the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer are suspended. The government also can intervene in the calls and mail of anyone they consider a suspect. The time someone can be held without charges is extended from three days to 15 days.
Rights activists say young men are frequently arrested just based on their age, on their appearance or whether they live in a gang-dominated slum.
El Salvador’s gangs, which have been estimated to count some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long controlled swaths of territory and extorted and killed with impunity.
But Bukele’s crackdown reached another level earlier this month when the government sent inmates into cemeteries to destroy the tombs of gang members at a time of year when families typically visit their loved ones’ graves.
Nongovernmental organizations have tallied several thousand human rights violations and at least 80 in-custody deaths of people arrested during the crackdown.