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Annihilating human rights is not the answer to the gang problem in El Salvador

The gangs in El Salvador have done nothing but inflict misery on the population. For 30 years, people have lived in fear of extortion, kidnapping, rape or murder at the hands of members of MS-13 or Barrio 18, rival groups founded in Los Angeles that were later exported to El Salvador through mass deportations. .

It is not surprising, therefore, that President Nayib Bukele’s so-called “war on gangs” has proved so popular. Authorities have jailed more than 50,000 suspected gang members since declaring the emergency regime in response to a wave of killings in late March. The murder rate has fallen sharply, although official figures do not include deaths at the hands of security forces and there are reports of discrepancies over the number of bodies recovered from mass graves.

But public security must not be achieved at the cost of massive human rights violations. As Amnesty International has documented, the authorities have dismantled judicial independence, committed acts of torture and carried out thousands of arbitrary arrests and violations of due process. Meanwhile, at least 69 detainees have died in state custody.

Amnesty International has documented how the authorities have dismantled judicial independence, committed acts of torture and carried out thousands of arbitrary arrests

With more than 1% of its population behind bars – in some cases just because of a “suspicious” or “nervous” appearance – El Salvador has overtaken the United States as the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. This is not the answer to a complex problem that has deep-seated socio-economic causes.

President Bukele’s security strategy is also not as innovative or sustainable as he has led people to believe. The emergency regime, now in its sixth month, bears a strong resemblance to the heavy-handed repressive campaigns of previous governments, in 2003 and 2004, which led to an initial decline in homicides, followed by a sharp increase from 2004 to 2006. .

An important difference is that, although judges quickly released many people unfairly detained during past operations, the current government has taken control of the judiciary, allowing it to implement its strategy of arbitrary arrests and mass illegal imprisonment without the shackles What are checks and balances.

Instead of stamping out human rights and judicial independence, authorities must address persistent inequalities that leave children from the most marginalized communities vulnerable to gang recruitment.

Jose Miguel Rodriguez, a former member of MS-13, told me in this regard: “The repressive measures do not change the gang member.” Rodriguez believes that people from poor neighborhoods would be less likely to join gangs if they had genuine educational and employment opportunities. Also, older gang members would be more willing to retire if they weren’t finding it virtually impossible to find decent employment or avoid constant police harassment.

President Bukele, who jokingly claims to be “the coolest dictator in the world”, has tried to shape public perception of his policies, limiting access to information and stigmatizing critical journalists.

Attempts to address the gang problem in El Salvador through rehabilitation and social reintegration have been largely limited to the modest efforts of a handful of evangelical churches, but even these initiatives have become unsustainable due to the current crackdown. One pastor, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told me that the emergency regime has undone years of work, and that authorities have detained all former gang members doing rehab at his church, along with many who had previously carried it out and had managed to reintegrate into society.

President Bukele, who jokingly claims to be “the most cool of the world”, has tried to shape the public perception of its policies, limiting access to information and stigmatizing critical journalists, which has forced some into exile. He has repeatedly attacked Juan Martinez, a journalist and anthropologist specializing in gang information, whom he called “trash” on Twitter in April, unleashing a torrent of threats and attacks from his ardent social media followers and high-ranking government officials.

Martinez, who was forced to leave El Salvador, told me that authorities try to discredit anyone who poses a threat to the government’s carefully crafted accounts. In this situation are his brothers Oscar and Carlos, who recently published in the digital medium The lighthouse disturbing data according to which the failure of a secret pact between the government and MS-13 was behind the outbreak of violence in March and the subsequent “war against the gangs”.

Pegasus spyware has been used against many journalists, and the government recently passed a vague wording law that allows 15-year prison sentences to be imposed on those who “reproduce and transmit messages or communications originating or allegedly originating” from gangs, if those messages “could generate anxiety and panic”.

Another local journalist who covers gangs told me that he had noticed men photographing him, following his car and surveilling his home last year, something that had never happened under previous governments. He fears being criminalized under the new gang law and worries that the president’s verbal attacks could promote physical violence against journalists. He has also thought about the possibility of leaving the country, but he does not want to uproot himself or abandon his family.

El Salvador must not continue down this path of disregard for human rights. The only way to protect the population and bring justice to gang victims is to guarantee solid investigations, due process and fair trials; while addressing the root causes of violent crime, and facilitating rehabilitation and social reintegration.

President Bukele must change course immediately.

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Source: EL PAIS

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