2,000 more to jail, vows will ‘never return’

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The government of El Salvador sent 2,000 more suspects on Wednesday to a massive new prison built specifically for gang members, and the justice minister vowed that “they will never return” to the streets.

The harsh statement came as President Nayib Bukele’s government asked for another extension of an anti-gang emergency measure that would bring the crackdown into its 13th month.

About 65,000 people have been arrested in the past 354 days in the anti-gang campaign. Human rights groups say there are many cases of prisoner abuse and innocent people dragged into police raids.

The government announced the mass transfer of detainees with a slick video posted on social media. It showed prisoners forced to run barefoot and handcuffed down stairs and across bare ground, wearing only white shorts. They were then forced to sit in cells with their legs locked in tightly packed groups.

Gustavo Villatoro, the government’s justice and peace minister, said the suspected gang members would never take to the streets again, even though about 57,000 of those arrested are still awaiting formal charges or trial.

“They will never return to the communities, the neighborhoods, the barrios, the cities of our beloved El Salvador,” Villatoro said.

So far, only about 3,500 people swept up in the crackdown have been released.

Bukele, who likes to take a contrary view and once described himself as “the coolest dictator in the world,” wrote on his Twitter account that “there are now 4,000 gang members in the world’s most criticized prison.”

Dubbed the Terrorism Confinement Center, the prison was inaugurated in February and already holds about 2,000 suspected gang members. It is a sprawling campus 72 kilometers east of San Salvador, the capital, which could eventually house 40,000 inmates.

Congress has yet to approve the extension of the anti-gang measures, but lawmakers are expected to do so, as they have done dozens of times before.

Bukele asked for the special powers to pursue the gangs on March 27 after a wave of gang violence that killed 62 people in a single day across the country. Street gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 have long murdered residents of El Salvador and extorted money.

The measures have reduced homicides and have proved very popular among most Salvadorans. Officials say there have been 200 days without killings since the crackdown began.

Under the special powers, the right of association is suspended, the police do not have to tell someone who is stopped the reason or their rights. Someone who has been arrested has no right to an attorney and can be held for 15 days without seeing a judge instead of the previous 72 hours.

The local human rights organization Cristosal documented 3,344 cases of human rights violations in the first 11 months of the state of emergency.

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