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El Salvador hikes prison sentences for gang members

March 31, 2022 GMT
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, March 27, 2022. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, amid a wave of gang-related killings over the weekend. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, March 27, 2022. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, amid a wave of gang-related killings over the weekend. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, March 27, 2022. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, amid a wave of gang-related killings over the weekend. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, March 27, 2022. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, amid a wave of gang-related killings over the weekend. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Heavily armed police guard the streets in down town San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, March 27, 2022. El Salvador's congress has granted President Nayib Bukele request to declare a state of emergency, amid a wave of gang-related killings over the weekend. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador’s Congress on Wednesday increased sentences for crimes committed by gang members, expanding on a state of emergency lawmakers granted last weekend as President Nayib Bukele pursues the country’s powerful street gangs.

Justice and Public Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said that now simply belonging to a gang would bring “an exemplar sentence.”

The changes to El Salvador’s penal code, which had been requested by Bukele, passed with votes from 76 of the 84 lawmakers.

The vote came the day after El Salvador experienced its first day without a killing since imposing a state of emergency following a rash of gang violence last weekend.

The National Civil Police said Wednesday that no one had been killed in the country Tuesday, though they later reported that two suspected gang members were killed early Wednesday by security forces.

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On Saturday alone 62 people were killed. That led Bukele to request congressional approval for a state of emergency that suspended some constitutional rights. The move has faced criticism from human rights organizations in El Salvador and abroad that warn the suspension of fundamental rights could open the door to human rights abuses.

In the first four days of the state of emergency, security forces arrested 2,163 suspected gang members, according to Bukele.

The measures approved by the Congress Sunday included restricting freedom to associate, the right of someone being informed of their rights when arrested and access to a lawyer. The government also extended to 15 days from 72 hours the time that someone can be held without charges and allowed authorities to intercept suspects’ communications without a judge’s approval.

Opposition lawmaker Jhonny Wright, of the Our Time party, said during a news conference Wednesday that the Congress had already given the maximum amount of latitude to the government to act in an emergency. The only rights remaining were those of free movement, freedom of expression, he said.

“The president is already talking about a war and this is highly worrisome,” Wright said.

Police and soldiers have already cordoned neighborhoods, searching house-by-house for gang members and controlling who enters and exits areas. Images of soldiers searching children’s backpacks were being widely shared on social media.

“You can’t assume that all children who live in areas of extreme poverty or who are besieged by (criminal) structures are gang collaborators,” said Zaira Navas, a human rights lawyer.

But Bukele is highly popular and even these new measures found support.

“Everyone, not just me, also educated people, know (the gangsters) are bad; they kill, they rob, they do what they want,” said Marta Maravilla, shopping Wednesday. “I support them applying all of the force.”

Some 16,000 imprisoned gang members have also been confined 24 hours a day to their cells under the state of emergency and seen their food reduced to two meals a day.