Thousands Arrested in El Salvador After Historic Crime Wave and Gang Killings

By Autumn Spredemann
Autumn Spredemann
Autumn Spredemann
Autumn is a South America-based reporter covering primarily Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.
April 1, 2022 Updated: April 6, 2022

Two of the most violent days in El Salvador’s recent history took place on March 25 and 26, when warring criminal gangs killed 76 people in the Central American nation.

Since then, more than 2,000 crime syndicate members have been arrested after Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency that was granted by congress on March 27.

The following day, Bukele told the battling lawbreakers to “stop killing now,” threatening that their fellow incarcerated gang members would pay the price. That same day, the head of state referred to a group of criminals as “idiots” on Twitter after three gang members were apprehended during a shootout with the police.

The March slayings topped last November’s three-day spree of gang-related murders, which left 46 people dead.

El Salvador has a history of entrenched criminal groups with international influence. Worse yet, some of the syndicates have a direct connection to Bukele’s administration.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13 gang.
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang on March 4, 2013. AFP (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2020, financial incentives were given to the Salvadoran gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 to keep gang violence and related homicides low, according to a report from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The same report stated that gang leaders also pledged political support to Bukele’s New Ideas political party, which won a two-thirds supermajority in legislative elections in 2021.

Further, Salvadoran government arrangements with crime syndicates in 2020 allowed jailed gang leaders to enjoy certain privileges while incarcerated, such as mobile phones and prostitutes.

Bukele rejected the allegations and fired back at the U.S. government on Twitter, saying, “How can they put out such an obvious lie without anyone questioning them?”

Nevertheless, the U.S. Treasury slapped financial sanctions on three senior officials in Bukele’s administration last December over suspected ties to organized crime.

However, the deal appears to be off the table after the recent wave of gangland killings.

Bukele said via social media that he ordered the country’s prison wardens to issue 24/7 lockdowns of gang inmates in their cells.

“They are not to go out even to the patio [of the prison],” Bukele stated. “A message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your homeboys will not see even one ray of sunlight.”

Yet despite the president’s swift response to the string of violent murders, some human rights organizations have criticized Bukele’s state of emergency as a mere grab for power from an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Gang members El Salvado
Gang members are secured during a police operation at El Salvador’s Izalco jail during a 24-hour lockdown ordered by President Nayib Bukele. (El Salvador Presidency/Handout via Reuters)

The freedom of association, assembly, privacy in communications, and some due process protections are suspended for 30 days under the order.

A series of announcements followed the decision which, according to Human Rights Watch, threatens multiple rights, including freedom from cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

Further, people are allowed to attend religious and sporting events during the state of emergency unless they are gang members or someone authorities consider suspicious. However, it wasn’t specified what the police consider to be suspicious.

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The government of President Bukele should take serious and rights-respecting steps to address heinous gang violence in El Salvador.

“Instead of protecting Salvadorans, this broad state of emergency is a recipe for disaster that puts their rights at risk.”

Bukele responded to the allegations of human rights violations perpetrated amid the state of emergency and the thousands of arrests in his trademark sarcastic style, saying, “We have 70,000 gang members still on the streets. Come get them, take them … get them out of this ‘dictatorial and authoritarian persecution.'”

Since taking office in 2019, Bukele has presided over historic low levels of gang violence in the country in 2020 and until November of last year.

Autumn Spredemann
Autumn is a South America-based reporter covering primarily Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.