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El Salvador police report says crackdown leaves 43,000 tied to gangs still free By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Policemen prepare for an anti-gang patrol following a year-long state of emergency against gangs, in Soyapango, El Salvador March 24, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Sarah Kinosian and Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – A confidential intelligence document from El Salvador’s National Civil Police shows that after a year and a half of a gang crackdown, police believe nearly 43,000 people allegedly connected to gangs have yet to be detained.

The 19-page document, first reported by InSight Crime and independently obtained by Reuters and confirmed authentic by police, is dated Sept. 1, 2023 and titled “State of Gangs in the Context of the State of Exception.”

It shows police believe 42,826 people, or 36% of those they say are tied to gangs, remain free. Of those, more than 20,000 are considered to be active gang members.

Rights organizations say the report raises questions, though, about how long the government plans to keep the crackdown going, its calculations on how many Salvadorans are tied to criminal groups, and how closely the more than 70,000 people jailed are connected to those groups.

“The state is playing two narratives,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Salvadoran rights group Cristosal.

“They want to say they’ve defeated the gangs but they also want to justify continuing mass human rights violations.”

In March last year, President Nayib Bukele asked the country’s congress to declare a “state of exception” to suspend several constitutional rights in the effort to capture alleged criminals. Security forces have since arrested more than 72,000 suspected gang members and associates, giving the country the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The leaked police report provides rare state information about the policy. The presidency declined to comment.

The state of exception has been very popular among Salvadorans tired of decades of gang violence, and proponents of the crackdown point to a significant drop in homicides and crimes such as extortion and drug dealing, while security analysts agree it has dealt a blow to criminal structures.

Rights organizations, however, say the crackdown has led to widespread abuses such as torture, deaths in custody and arbitrary detentions, particularly of young men in poorer neighborhoods.

The police press department declined to comment in response to a request for further information.

“They are weakened, but there are cliques that can carry out murders as ordered,” the report said about the gangs’ current strength.

The report also raises questions about the rank of those detained, rights organizations said. Authorities put alleged gang members into three categories: active members, aspiring members and collaborators, defined as people who assist the gang but are not members.

Of those arrested, 1,230 are considered to be gang leaders of some kind, the document showed, while the more ambiguous “collaborators” category was registered at 41,673, or 54% of those detained.

Marvin Reyes, General Secretary of the Police Workers Movement, said the report was consistent with his group’s assessment of the security situation – that those who have been arrested are not gang leaders.

“Those detained are more part of the lower and middle structure of the gangs,” Reyes said. “They aren’t the leaders and their lieutenants.”

Bullock questioned the report’s specificity, saying it could indicate the collateral damage is much greater than the government admits. The report documents, down to region and precise number, how many people are in each category.

“If they have such sophisticated police intelligence, why do they need to detain people for years while they investigate them to prove they are in gangs?” he said. “Why are they doing thousands of arbitrary detentions of innocent people with no previous evidence or warrants?”

So far the government has released 7,000 people it has detained that they have determined are innocent. For the more than 70,000 still jailed, the government has said it will hold mass trials of up to 900 people at a time in coming months, drawing criticism from rights groups over due process.

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