El Salvador extends special powers to combat gangs

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador’s congress voted Tuesday to extend for a third time the state of exception that has suspended some fundamental rights and led to the arrests of more than 41,000 people during the past three months.

The government says the extraordinary powers are necessary to confront the powerful street gangs that control neighborhoods, extorting and driving people from their homes.

President Nayib Bukele first requested the state of exception in late March, a day after gangs killed 62 people, shattering one of the president’s most touted achievements — a dramatic decrease in murders.

The proposal passed with votes from 67 of the 84 lawmakers in the unicameral Legislative Assembly. While the proposal was debated, Bukele said on Twitter that construction had started on a massive new prison.

Under the state of exception, the time people can be held without seeing a judge was increased to 15 days from 72 hours. They also do not have to be informed of why they are being arrested or given the right to speak with a lawyer, and authorities can tap phones without a judge’s order.

The constitution allows for the suspension of rights to be extended only if the circumstances that justified it in the first place continue. Civil rights organizations have argued that the state of exception was never justified, because authorities already had the ability to investigate and make arrests.

Critics say that many of the arrests have been arbitrary, violate due process and have resulted in innocent people locked away. Judges have been practically automatic in ordering people held in jail for months while authorities try to build cases against them.

On Tuesday, Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said that authorities were winning the war against the gangs, but there was more work to do. “The mission that Salvadorans are giving us is clear, eradicate these terrorists from Salvadoran territory,” he said.

Bukele’s approval ratings have remained high and the measures have been popular among a population tired of living in constant fear of the gangs.

José Heriberto Hernández, a 51-year-old laborer, said Tuesday that he supports the measures, but added that “I also think that they need to take steps to free the innocent more quickly.”

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