More than 6,000 gang members have been arrested in the first nine days of El Salvador’s state of emergency, President Nayib Bukele said on Monday, after imposing measures to stamp out a surging wave of homicides.
The Central American country declared emergency measures – allowing the arrest of gang members without a warrant – last week after 87 reported killings from March 25-27.
And on Monday, the president said the 6,000 detained in just over a week added to the 16,000 gang members already incarcerated in El Salvador’s jails.
Speaking at a police barracks in the capital San Salvador, Bukele spoke of public concern over gangs “taking revenge” on the population over the mass arrest operations.
If they commit an act of revenge, “there won’t even be a single meal in the prisons,” the president said.
“I swear to God they won’t eat a single grain of rice, and we’ll see how long they last, and I don’t care what international organizations say,” he added.
As well as warrantless arrests, the emergency measures – which last for a month – also restrict freedom of assembly, while phone calls and emails can be intercepted without a court order.
Such wide and rapid adoption of powers granted to the army and the police has alarmed local and international human rights organisations.
Bukele added that he had ordered the construction of a maximum security prison with a capacity of 20,000 inmates.
“There are only two ways: jail or death,” he said.
The 40-year-old president, elected in 2019, enjoys broad support in El Salvador for his promises to fight organized crime and improve security in the violence-ridden country.
Last week, the ruling party-controlled parliament reformed the criminal code to increase the maximum sentence for gang membership from nine to 45 years in prison.