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El Salvador sends 10,000 police and military to cordon off the city

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 troops and police on Saturday to cordon off a town on the outskirts of the nation’s capital to search for gang members.

The operation was one of the largest mobilizations to date in President Nayib Bukele’s nine-month crackdown on street gangs that have long extorted money from businesses and ruled many neighborhoods in the capital, San Salvador.

Troops blocked roads in and out of Soyapango commune, checking people’s papers. Special teams went to the city in search of gang suspects.

“From now on, Soyapango Township is completely surrounded,” Bukele wrote on his Twitter account. He posted videos showing rows of soldiers armed with rifles.

More than 58,000 people have been jailed since a state of emergency was declared following a spate of killings in late March. Rights groups have criticized mass roundups, saying they often swipe young men based on their appearance or where they live.

It was part of what Bukele called in late November “phase five” of the crackdown. Bukele said such tactics worked in the town of Comasagua in October.

In October, more than 2,000 soldiers and police surrounded and cordoned off Comasagua to search for street gang members accused of murder. Drones flew over the city and anyone entering or leaving the city was questioned or searched. Fifty suspects were arrested in two days.

“It worked,” Bukele said. The government estimates that homicides fell by 38% in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period of 2021.

Bukele asked Congress to grant him extraordinary powers after gangs were charged with 62 murders on March 26, and that emergency decree has been renewed every month since then. It suspends certain constitutional rights and gives police more powers to arrest and detain suspects.

Under this decree, the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer are suspended. The government can also intervene in the calls and mail of anyone it considers suspicious. The length of time a person can be detained without charge is increased from three to 15 days.

Rights activists say young men are frequently arrested solely because of their age, their appearance or the fact that they live in a gang-dominated slum.

Salvadoran gangs, estimated to have some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long controlled swaths of territory and extort and kill with impunity.

But the Bukele crackdown reached another level earlier this month when the government sent inmates to cemeteries to destroy the graves of gang members at a time of year when families typically visit the graves of their relatives.

Non-governmental organizations have documented several thousand human rights violations and at least 80 deaths in custody of those arrested during the crackdown.

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