El Salvador Congress extends anti-gang emergency decree

El Salvador Congress extends anti-gang emergency decree

El Salvadoran Congress granted a second extension of the country's anti-gang emergency decree Wednesday by President Nayib Bukele.

The vote extends the state of emergency for 30 more days that was originally issued for one month in late March and extended for another month in April.

Gustavo Villatoro, Bukele's security minister, vowed that the government's war on gangs will continue, even though the homicide rate has dropped sharply.

Villatoro said that the war is going to continue for as long as necessary and to the extent that the public will demand it. We are going to continue to fight this cancer, and we have said it before, and we stand by it. This war will continue until the gangs are eradicated from the territory of El Salvador. The measure was approved by 67 votes in the 84- seat Congress, where Bukele's party holds a majority.

Bukele has used emergency powers to round up about 34,500 suspected gang members after a spate of killings in March.

Rights groups have criticized the measures, saying that arrests are often arbitrary based on a person's appearance or where they live.

The emergency decree has strong support among Salvadorans tired of killings and extortion, according to polls.

The measure came after a spate of murders in late March when gangs were blamed for killing 62 people in a single weekend, a level of violence that the country of 6.5 million people had not seen in a long time.

The original justification for the measures — the surge in homicides — has subsided.

Whether there is a legal justification or not, Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution are very clear about the causes that can trigger a state of emergency, and the causes have disappeared, said Ruth Eleonora L pez, a lawyer and activist with the civic group Cristosal.

The measure restricts the right to gather, to be informed of rights and to have access to a lawyer. It extends to 15 days the time that someone can be held without charges.

Bukele has set up a raft of other measures. They reduced the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and lengthened sentences among other things.

El Salvadoran Congress has authorized prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for news media that reproduce or disseminate messages from the gangs, alarming press freedom groups.

Gang members held in Salvadoran prisons have been put on reduced food rations, denied mattresses and frog-marched around.

Rights groups have expressed concerns that innocent people are being caught up in sweeps targeting the notorious violent street gangs.

Villatoro seemed not to be swayed by human rights arguments. He said gangs are a cancer that won't be eradicated with chemotherapy and that we need more time to fight this cancer from all of our country's communities. Gangs control swaths of territory through violence and fear. They have driven thousands to emigrate to save their own lives or the lives of their children who are forcibly recruited.

The gangs' power is strongest in El Salvador's poorest neighborhoods, where the state has been absent for a long time. They are a drain on the economy, extorting money from even the lowest earners and forcing businesses that can't or won't pay to close.