SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- With 50,000 people locked up since late March for alleged gang ties, El Salvador’s congress has approved another month-long extension of the state of exception that suspends some fundamental rights in the name of combatting the country’s powerful gangs.
Polling has shown the measure to be widely popular despite criticism from civil rights organizations within and outside El Salvador. Those groups and relatives of the detained say people have been arrested without evidence or due process and jailed for months already as they await trial.
Before the congressional vote late Tuesday, a few dozen protesters gathered outside the Legislative Assembly calling for an end to the state of exception.
President Nayib Bukele requested extraordinary powers after gangs were blamed for 62 killings on March 26.
Under the state of exception, the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer are suspended. The government also can intervene in the calls and mail of anyone they consider a suspect. The time someone can be held without charges is extended from three days to 15 days.
The current period was set to expire Aug. 20.
Those arrested typically make initial appearances en masse before a judge where prosecutors accuse them belonging to or associating with gangs. Evidence is usually not presented. Judges have been almost automatic in ordering them held for six months pending trial, giving prosecutors time to try to build cases.
Bukele and his cabinet say the measures are finally allowing the country to deal with its “terrorists.” The president has shifted from tweeting the number of arrests each day to heralding the days with no murders. The government is building a massive new prison.
The gangs, which have been estimated to count some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long terrorized El Salvador. They controlled swaths of territory and extorted and killed with impunity.
“We have strongly impacted the terrorist structures,” said Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro in presenting the extension request to lawmakers Wednesday. “We have witnessed how Salvadorans were able to enjoy the safest vacations in history,” referring to recent national holidays.
The proposal received the support of 66 of the body’s 84 lawmakers.
Outside the congress before the vote, 25-year-old Virginia Guadalupe Solano López said her husband, José Alfredo Vega, had been relaxing in their home with their daughter on March 27 in Jiquilisco in eastern El Salvador when police hauled him away without explanation. She has not seen him since.
“He’s not a criminal, ... he doesn’t have a record, he’s not stained,” she said. “They took him because someone accused him of being with the gangs.”
The Alliance for Peace movement opened an office for legal counseling and said recently it had received 500 complaints for arbitrary arrests. El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman, Apolonio Tobar, said his office has 28 open investigations into the deaths of people who died while in custody under the state of exception.
But in general, Salvadorans have been relieved by the relative peace in the streets.
An association of bus companies said that gang extorsion of their members has decreased 95%. “It’s a respite,” they said in a statement.