El Salvador's Bukele seeks emergency powers over spike in gang killings

President Nayib Bukele
President Nayib BukeleAFP/GETTY IMAGES

Agency Report

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has urged lawmakers to declare a state of emergency after authorities arrested top gang leaders over a wave of bloodshed that has left dozens dead in just two days.

Gang violence has soared in El Salvador, with police reporting that 62 people were killed on Saturday alone.

"We will not back down in this war against gangs, we will not rest until the criminals responsible for these acts are captured and brought to justice," the country's National Civil Police posted on Twitter.

According to the official figures, 12 of the killings took place in the central department of La Libertad, with the capital San Salvador and the western department of Ahuachapan recording nine each. The rest were distributed across the country's remaining departments.

Hours earlier, police and the military arrested several leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang over the spate of killings.

In response to the surge in violence, Bukele asked the legislature -- controlled by his ruling party -- to meet to declare a state of emergency, under which certain freedoms are curtailed.

The Salvadoran constitution says that a state of emergency can be put into place "in cases of war, invasion of territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic or other general calamity, or serious disturbances of public order."

In its plenary session Sunday morning, lawmakers will also pay tribute to those killed by gangs.

Bukele urgently gathered top security officials, along with the attorney general, to address the issue, the National Civil Police reported Saturday afternoon.

- 'Let the agents do their job' -

"Since yesterday, we have had a new spike in homicides, something that we had worked so hard to reduce," Bukele said in a statement posted on Twitter by Congress president Ernesto Castro.

"While we fight criminals in the streets, we must try to figure out what is happening and who is financing this."

Bukele said the country "must let the agents and soldiers do their job and must defend them from the accusations of those who protect the gang members."

He also asked the prosecutor's office "to be effective with all" gang member cases it processes, warning he would keep an eye on "judges who favor criminals."

Top government human rights lawyer Ricardo Martinez asked the population to "remain calm" and contribute to the promotion of "a culture of peace" in the country.

Last November, El Salvador suffered another spike in homicides that claimed the lives of some 45 people in three days.

The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio-18 gangs, among others, have about 70,000 members in El Salvador, according to authorities, and their operations involve homicides, extortion and drug trafficking.

The country registered 1,140 murders in 2021 -- an average of 18 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants -- less than the 1,341 registered the previous year and the lowest figure since the end of the civil war in 1992, according to official data.

Elected in 2019, Bukele enjoys broad support in El Salvador over his promises to fight organized crime and improve security in the violence-wracked country.

His allies also hold a large majority in the country's Congress -- a situation not seen since a peace deal in 1992 put an end to 12 years of bloody civil war.

But he has also long been accused of authoritarian tendencies.

AFP

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