Over 1,000 gang suspects arrested amid El Salvador killing spree

El Salvador’s government said on Monday it had arrested more than 1,000 gang suspects after a spate of killings over the weekend.

President Nayib Bukele also ordered that food for gang members held in Salvadoran prisons be reduced to two meals a day, seized mattresses from inmates and released video of prisoners walking down hallways and up stairs.

The government declared a state of emergency and locked down prisons after 87 murders were committed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Authorities blamed the killings on gang members, and on Monday authorities said soldiers and police raided gang strongholds around San Salvador.

Bukele wrote that those detained would not be released. His order to cut off gang inmate food was apparently meant to stretch current food supplies to feed new inmates.

Police and soldiers are seen on patrol in San Salvador on Sunday. Authorities blamed the killings on gang members, and on Monday authorities said soldiers and police raided gang strongholds around San Salvador. (Jessica Orellana/Reuters)

“Don’t think they are going to be released,” Bukele wrote on his Twitter account. “We will ration the same food we give now [to inmates].”

“And if the international community is worried about their little angels, let them come and bring them food, because I’m not going to take the money out of the school budget to feed these terrorists,” the president wrote.

Bukele also posted a video showing guards with batons roughly forcing inmates to walk, run and even down stairs with their arms held behind their necks or backs.

At one point, a handcuffed inmate tumbles down a flight of stairs as a guard forces him to run down. The prisoner groans then is forced to get up to continue running. Inmates were stripped down to their underwear and their mattresses were taken away.

Emergency state

El Salvador’s congress granted Bukele’s request to declare a state of emergency early Sunday amid the weekend’s spate of killings. By comparison, there were 79 homicides for the entire month of February.

The state of emergency suspends constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and relaxes arrest rules for up to 30 days, but could be extended. The decree allows suspects to be held without a lawyer for up to 15 days and allows police to search cell phones and messages.

On Sunday, a soldier checks a person’s backpack as he leaves the community of Las Palmas, a neighborhood believed to be under the control of the Barrio 18 gang in San Salvador. (Salvador Melendez/Associated Press)

The homicides appeared to be linked to the country’s notorious street gangs, which effectively control many areas of the capital. National police reported capturing five Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 leaders, who they believe ordered the weekend killings.

Bukele previously ordered the country’s prisons chief to carry out an immediate 24/7 lockdown of gang inmates in their cells.

“They must not go out even in the patio” of the prisons, Bukele wrote, adding “a message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your homies will not see a single ray of sunshine”.

“It’s unbearable”

Bukele’s tough attitude to crime is unlikely to find much criticism in El Salvador.

“It’s unbearable. The gangs kill when they want, they do what they want. They must be punished, and very harshly,” said Mario Alas, 39, as he got off a suburban bus in San Salvador, the capital.

Juana Sanchez, 55, a resident of the capital, complained: “Nothing happens to them, they put them in jail for a while and fatten them up, and when they come out they keep attacking people , taking their money and killing them.”

A police tender guards the perimeter of a crime scene where a person was killed in San Salvador on Sunday. (Salvador Melendez/Associated Press)

But the country’s extremely powerful street gangs proved a double-edged sword for Bukele.

“We must remind the Salvadoran people that what is happening now is due to the negligence of those who protected the criminals,” the conservative Arena party said in a statement.

It was an apparent reference to a December report from the US Treasury Department that said Bukele’s government had secretly brokered a truce with gang leaders. This contradicted Bukele’s denials and increased tensions between the two nations.

The US government alleges that Bukele’s government bought gang support with financial benefits and privileges for their imprisoned leaders, including prostitutes and cellphones. Bukele has vehemently denied the charges.