The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, issued another warning Tuesday that he will not let up in his efforts to defeat the gangs (maras) that sow terror across the Central American country. The controversial president announced a new operation in his war against criminal organizations, which includes a military siege in an area in the center of the country to prevent gang members from being able to move freely and to break their supply chains. The new offensive includes the mobilization of 7,000 military personnel and 1,000 heavily armed police. Bukele has said that the siege will be maintained until “the operatives can extract all gang members.”
The militarized zone includes the central province of Cabañas, an agricultural and cattle-raising region where, according to the government, gangs maintain extensive control, extort money from residents and mete out violence. Combating this is the justification Bukele has used since March 2022, when he launched a crackdown against the maras that included the imposition of a state of emergency that gives the executive branch free rein to act against criminal groups. This institutional tool suspends citizens’ constitutional guarantees and has allowed authorities to arbitrarily detain more than 70,000 people, in the absence of evidence that they belong to gangs. This security strategy has been strongly criticized by human rights organizations, which have denounced the disproportionate use of force against civilians, torture and disappearances, the deaths of prisoners in custody, and the censorship and persecution of critical voices.
Desde esta madrugada, 7000 soldados y 1000 policías han establecido un cerco de seguridad alrededor de todo el departamento de Cabañas.— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) August 1, 2023
Su labor será evitar la salida de pandilleros del departamento y cortar todas las líneas de suministro de los grupos terroristas. pic.twitter.com/qlNQMAJcIE
“Since this morning, 7,000 soldiers and 1,000 police officers have established a security fence. Their job will be to prevent gang members from leaving the area and cut off all supply lines belonging to terrorist groups,” Bukele announced Tuesday in a message posted on the social network X, formerly Twitter, his preferred method for relaying decisions as he has tens of thousands of followers who applaud his announcements.
Bukele also uses social media to respond to criticism of his military crackdown. The most recent exchange was with Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who said in an interview with the BBC: “I think that if in order to achieve a laudable objective, which is the desire for security that the vast majority of the population have in any country in the world, shortcuts are taken in terms of democratic convictions and respect for human rights, eventually that sooner or later ends up paying the bill. When we only focus on who is the toughest or most categorical, or the most extreme measures to combat crime, in the end we are not solving the underlying issue and it is bread for today and hunger for tomorrow.”
Bukele reacted furiously and retorted that his government “can do two things at once. A good security strategy includes prevention and direct repression of crime.” The El Salvadoran president added: “How difficult it must be to lead a country with so little common sense. Thank God Chileans are more than their president.”
Bukele also takes critical media to task, as he did when addressing a report published over the weekend by this newspaper: “This is not journalism, it is simply desperate activism, ordered by those who fear the power of example,” he said.
Bukele’s war against the gangs has unleashed criticism from sectors that generally do not openly question the decisions of the government, such as the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar, asked that following the announcement of mass trials to process the thousands of people detained during the state of emergency, the presumption of innocence be maintained. “What we will always ask is that, whether the trial is a group trial or an individual one, innocence be favored. We will fight as hard as possible for the innocent to be released soon,” Escobar said.
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