In El Salvador, army surrounds town to root out gang

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — More than 2,000 soldiers and police surrounded and closed off a town in El Salvador Sunday in order to search for street gang members accused in a killing.

The large-scale encirclement of the town of Comasagua is the latest example of heavy-handed tactics by the government to root out street gangs. Everyone entering or leaving the town was questioned or searched.

President Nayib Bukele wrote in his Twitter account that members of the MS-13 gang were believed to still be inside Comasagua, about 20 miles (30 kms) southwest of the capital, San Salvador.

Bukele requested Congress grant him extraordinary powers after gangs were blamed for 62 killings on March 26, and that decree has been renewed every month since then. It suspends some Constitutional rights and gives police more powers to arrest and hold suspects.

So, far the emergency decree has resulted in the arrest of 53,485 people, of whom 47,893 were charged.

Under the state of exception, the right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer are suspended. The government also can intervene in the calls and mail of anyone they consider a suspect. The time someone can be held without charges is extended from three days to 15 days.

Rights activists say young men are frequently arrested just based on their age, on their appearance or whether they live in a gang-dominated slum.

El Salvador’s gangs, which have been estimated to count some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long controlled swaths of territory and extorted and killed with impunity.