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El Salvador gang killings, homicide violence state of emergency

El Salvador gang killings, homicide violence state of emergency
soldiers at a checkpoint in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador on Sunday. This is how it looked.
Gang violence has been on the rise in El Salvador, setting a new record.

It was a killing spree, with gangs shooting down as many people as they could on the street. On Saturday, at least 62 people were killed in what has been the deadliest day on record in Haiti for 30 years.

Sunday was a day of emergency in El Salvador. On Saturday, gangs went on a killing spree, randomly shooting street vendors, bus passengers, and market-goers. This was the single bloodiest day in the country since the end of its civil war 30 years ago.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, El Salvador's Parliament approved a 30-day emergency rule that would suspend some civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution, make it easier for people to be arrested, limit free assembly, and let the government read people's emails and phone calls.

Another change made by the military was to limit who could leave and come into areas controlled by the well-known street gang MS-13.

There were at least 62 deaths on Saturday, which is a record for the country of six million people, government officials say.

Violence could hurt the reputation of President Nayib Bukele, the charismatic young leader of El Salvador. His approval ratings are some of the highest in the world, around 85%. El Salvador's streets are some of the world's most dangerous. Mr. Bukele, 40, ran for office on a promise to bring law and order to the streets. Since he took office nearly three years ago, he seemed to be keeping that promise.

This may not have been because of Mr. Bukele's strict security policies, but because of a secret deal that was made soon after he became president. The media outlet El Faro first reported on this deal in September 2020.

San Salvador's vice minister of justice and public security, as well as other top officials, were hit with sanctions by the US Treasury Department in December. They were accused of negotiating a "secret truce" with gang bosses.

Mr. Bukele has said that those accusations are not true, and he says that his tough approach is the reason that homicides have gone down so much.

In the past, analysts and a U.S. official said that the deal might not work out.

A soldier in San Salvador, El Salvador, looked through a man's backpack on Sunday near a neighborhood that is thought to be run by gangs.
A soldier in San Salvador, El Salvador, looked through a man's backpack on Sunday near a neighborhood that is thought to be run by gangs.

Under these secret talks, the Treasury Department says that the government gave the gangs money and gave them special treatment in prison, like access to mobile phones and prostitutes. Instead, the gangs said they would cut down on their violence and killings.

He is the latest in a long line of Salvadoran presidents who have been accused of making deals with gangs and giving them money to keep the peace. In the past, governments have used this tactic to win elections and appeal to a population that is tired of the never-ending war.

Resident: I woke up Saturday to a lot of noise, shouts, and gunshots in the capital city of San Salvador. I had been living there for a few years when President Bukele took office in 2019.

On Saturday morning, his neighbor, a young man, was killed while going out to buy bread for his family in the MS-13-run neighborhood where they live. On Sunday, soldiers and police officers swarmed the area, putting things back to how they were.

There are more homicides and police operations are strong after the violence stops, says Marvin, 34. He asked that his last name not be used because he lives in a neighborhood controlled by the gangs where he lives.

When they leave, everything will be back to normal in about 15 days, he said. This means that the gangs will be back in charge of the streets.

Bukele, a young man who is very good at using social media, said he would punish the gangs in response to the recent violence. He prefers backward baseball caps to the usual pomp and circumstance that comes with the presidency.

Message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your "homeboys" won't be able to see a ray of sunshine. The government has locked down prisons and no inmates can leave their cells because of the state of emergency.

Security and political experts think that the violence on Saturday may have been a way for the gangs to change the terms of the supposed deal they made with Mr. Bukele's government. The violence was not caused by fights between gang members or threats to vendors who didn't pay extortion fees, as is often the case. It caught anyone who was caught on the street.

There may have been problems with the terms of the previous agreement with Bukele's government. The gangs may be trying to change the terms of that agreement. Bukele is not letting a good crisis go to waste, and this happened while he was already trying to get the law changed to help him gain more power.

It has been said in the past that the Salvadoran president has used the military to interfere with the legislature and that last year he fired Supreme Court judges and the attorney general in an unconstitutional power grab.

The state of emergency was put in place on Sunday, which has raised fears that Mr. Bukele will use the weekend violence to get even more powerful than before.

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