El Salvador President, Nayib Bukele, has authorized the use of lethal force by the police and army against gang members he says are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, after a weekend of violence left at least 50 people dead across the country.
The president authorized lethal force “against the terrorists who are carrying out imminent threats against the physical integrity of the population,” he explained.
Bukele, who took office last June, campaigned on the promise of taking a tough stance on gang violence, which has plagued El Salvador for decades.
El Salvador inmates crammed together in prison lockdown
Right groups however condemned El Salvador’s president on Monday for releasing startling photos of hundreds of jailed gang members stripped to underwear and pressed together in formation, part of a punishment for an outbreak of violence.
The images published at the weekend on the Twitter account of President Nayib Bukele’s office stood in contrast to social-distancing measures around the world, including an obligatory home quarantine in El Salvador to stop the new coronavirus spreading.
They were followed by orders from Bukele to place members of gangs, including the notorious MS-13, in sealed, steel box-like cells and permission to use lethal force against gang members on the streets.
Gang members who have already been arrested are being put in a 24-hour lockdown across the country’s seven maximum security prisons, with additional measures on Bukele’s orders. Those measures include putting metal sheets over jail cells and housing prisoners who are members of different gangs together.
“Gangs increased the murders throughout the country after receiving orders from inside the jail cells, according to intelligence reports,” Bukele said in his declaration.
Bukele’s latest action follows controversy over his disregard for Supreme Court rulings that he should uphold the constitution and his recent use of the military to intimidate Congress.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, said El Salvador risked sliding into autocracy without reprobation from global powers.
“We have the duty to make sure that El Salvador does not become another dictatorship,” Vivanco told Reuters.
“The only way to stop this is to have a strong reaction by the international community,” Vivanco said, noting a lack of public criticism from the U.S. government or the European Union after recent rights violations.
Bukele has previously shrugged off criticism from human rights group and political opponents, saying it his duty to protect Salvadorans, and describing his predecessors as corrupt.
He enjoys strong poll ratings in the country of 6.5 million people, which has been terrorized by street gangs since shortly after the end of its civil war in 1992.
The government posted the photos showing rows and rows of prisoners sitting tightly packed, with their hands behind their backs, as police officers in riot gear looked on.
Some 12,862 gang members are incarcerated in El Salvador, according to prison authorities.
Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, Erika Guevara, said the situation was “worrisome.”
CDeNews – Reuters / CNN