El Salvador's justice minister, Gustavo Villatoro, is interviewed by Efe on 21 March 2023 in San Salvador, El Salvador. EFE/Rodrigo Sura

El Salvador to mark 1-year anniversary of controversial state of emergency

By Sara Acosta

San Salvador, Mar 24 (EFE).- El Salvador’s government is set to mark the one-year anniversary of its “state of exception,” a controversial measure that has been denounced by human rights groups yet is seen by many in that Central American country as the solution to a longstanding street-gang problem.

First implemented on March 27, 2022, and renewed for an additional period of 30 days on 12 occasions, it is supported by much of the population and is responsible for President Nayib Bukele’s sky-high popularity.

Thanks to his crackdown on the country’s gangs, Bukele currently has an approval rating of 86 percent, the highest of all Latin American leaders, according to a recent CID Gallup survey.

His popularity also seems to have been undented by a flood of accusations of human rights violations issued by watchdog organizations based in both El Salvador and abroad.

In another poll conducted by the Central American University’s Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP), 75.9 percent of Salvadoran citizens said they supported the measure even though half of the population said it would not solve the gang problem.

El Salvador’s justice minister, Gustavo Villatoro, is interviewed by Efe on 21 March 2023 in San Salvador, El Salvador. EFE/Rodrigo Sura

Nearly 66,000 people with gang connections have been arrested since the state of exception began, some 4,500 of whom have been released while their criminal cases remain pending, Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro told Efe.

Families of many detainees, however, say that their loved ones were law-abiding citizens, while human rights organizations and the office of the national ombud have received thousands of complaints about arbitrary arrest and dozens of detainees have died.

A recently opened maximum-security prison in El Salvador where thousands of accused gang members have been transferred has sparked further criticism, with Colombian leftist President Gustavo Petro calling it a “concentration camp.”

Villatoro said 10 of the 15 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, commonly known as MS-13, have been arrested and are facing judicial proceedings.

He added that the three main Salvadoran gangs (MS-13 and the two rival factions of the Barrio 18 outfit: Sureños and Revolucionarios) no longer function as criminal enterprises.

“What’s left are those hiding from justice, who can no longer … control districts, communities or neighborhoods and are fleeing in rural areas,” he said.

Celia Medrano, a Salvadorian human rights expert and former candidate for the Secretariat of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told Efe the gangs “as El Salvador had known them … will not be seen anymore in the country.”

Even so, she said elites within those criminal outfits have “morphed, become more sophisticated and developed new organizations.”

Besides a reduction in homicides since the onset of the state of exception – a total of 496 murders were registered last year in El Salvador, down from 1,147 in 2021 – Villatoro underscored a drop in the crime of extortion.

Celia Medrano, a human rights expert, is interviewed by Efe on 14 March 2023 in San Salvador, El Salvador. EFE/Rodrigo Sura

“That impact (the collecting of extortion payments) that existed in our towns, in the communities, in the productive areas – such as markets – let’s say, that’s 98 percent gone,” the justice minister said.

“Between $1.5 billion and $2 billion are not going into the hands of these terrorists,” he added, noting that residents in many districts had to pay to come and go before the state of exception took effect.

Referring to the drop in crime, he said a sense of tranquility and an “atmosphere of joy, freedom” has been restored to communities after “more than 120,000 Salvadorans were killed in three decades.”

Villatoro also said that measure has had an impact on the gangs’ ability to sell and distribute drugs nationwide.

A businessman who owns three public transport vehicles, for his part, confirmed in remarks to Efe that money is no longer being extorted from drivers, at least not on the route where his buses operate.

Medrano, however, said “it should be increasingly clear that the slogan ‘state of exception'” is inaccurate, adding that there is nothing exceptional about the measure.

“How can it be exceptional (when it’s a) permanent system to suspend constitutional guarantees and human rights that’s going to hit the one-year mark and very likely will last all of 2023, until the presidential re-election plan has drawn to a close?” she added.

A succession of governments has struggled to subdue MS-13 and the other gangs, which originated in Southern California among the children of Salvadorans fleeing the country’s 1980-1992 civil war.

Convicted gang members deported back to their homeland from the United States established the gangs on Salvadoran soil, where the number of members is currently estimated at around 70,000. EFE