2,000 more in jail, the vows will never come back

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The Salvadoran government on Wednesday sent 2,000 more suspects to a huge new prison built specifically for gang members, and the justice minister vowed that “they will never go back” to the street.

The harsh statement comes as President Nayib Bukele’s administration has requested a further extension of emergency anti-gang measures that would bring the crackdown into its 13th month.

Over the past 354 days, around 65,000 people have been arrested in connection with the anti-gang campaign. Human rights groups say there have been numerous cases of prisoner abuse and innocent people being taken away in police raids.

The government announced the mass transfer of detainees with a skillfully produced video posted on social media. It showed prisoners being forced to run barefoot and handcuffed up stairs and across bare ground, wearing only regulation white shorts. They were then forced to sit with their legs locked in tight groups in the cells.

Gustavo Villatoro, the government’s justice and peace minister, said suspected gang members would never return to the streets, although around 57,000 of those arrested are still awaiting formal charges or a trial.

“They will never return to the communities, neighborhoods, barrios, cities of our beloved El Salvador,” Villatoro said.

Only around 3,500 victims of the crackdown have been released so far.

Bukele, who likes to take a contrary stance and once described himself as “the coolest dictator in the world”, wrote on his Twitter account that “there are now 4,000 gang members in the most criticized prison in the world”.

Dubbed the Terrorism Confinement Center, the prison opened in February and already holds around 2,000 suspected gang members. It is a sprawling campus 72 kilometers east of San Salvador, the capital, which could potentially house up to 40,000 inmates.

Congress has yet to approve the expansion of anti-gang measures, but lawmakers should do so, as they have done a dozen times before.

Bukele requested special powers to prosecute gangs on March 27, following an upsurge in gang violence in which 62 people were killed in a single day across the country. Street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have long killed and extorted people in El Salvador.

The measures reduced killings and proved very popular among most Salvadorans. Officials say that since the crackdown began, there have been 200 days without any homicides.

Under the special powers, the right of association is suspended, the police do not have to tell someone the reason for their arrest or inform them of their rights. An arrested person has no right to a lawyer and can be detained for 15 days without seeing a judge instead of the previous 72 hours.

Local human rights group Cristosal documented 3,344 cases of human rights abuses during the first 11 months of the state of emergency.

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