Alleged gang members are paraded in front of the media following a police operation in El Salvador. EFE/Rodrigo Sura/File

Occupation by security forces spreads fear in Salvadoran town

Victoria, El Salvador, Aug 3 (EFE).- Residents of a town founded by people displaced during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war say they are worried about arbitrary arrests amid an occupation by security forces under a state of exception that has seen nearly 72,000 people detained since March 2022.

Santa Marta, a town of roughly 3,000 people 136 km (85 mi) north of San Salvador, has been in the news for what various organizations describe as the politically motivated arrests in January of five community leaders in connection with a decades-old murder case.

The request from the Santa Marta Association for Socio-Economic Development (ADES) for the release of the five men has been echoed by Mary Lawlor, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Police and soldiers recently moved into Santa Marta, ostensibly to round up gang members who fled the cities to escape arrest under the state of exception, which entails the suspension of constitutional guarantees and allows police to detain people without a warrant or even a reason that would pass judicial muster under normal circumstances.

What the government of right-wing President Nayib Bukele calls a security siege is a source of anxiety for people in Santa Marta.

“This is very concerning because the community is formed by people displaced in the armed conflict, so the military presence in itself generates terrible fear,” ADES member Alfredo Leiva told EFE.

As many as 400 troops were on the streets in Santa Marta last week, he said.

“The police have said that there are other people on the list who may be captured and the mere presence of the soldiers carries that fear that there may be arrests or other kinds of violent acts,” Leiva said.

ADES sees the occupation as part of “a strategy to intimidate the community,” he said, noting that the security siege was implemented after someone wrote on Twitter “that there was a strong gang presence in Santa Marta and that an immediate intervention was necessary.”

“Here there been no presence of gang members for many years and so we think that the military presence pursues other objectives that are to intimidate the community,” Leiva said, suggesting that authorities want to dissuade Santa Marta residents from continuing to demand the release of the five leaders arrested in January.

Successive governments have struggled to subdue Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and other gangs, which originated in Southern California among the children of Salvadorans fleeing the 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 sa/dr