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153 Killed in Custody in Salvadorian Gang Crackdown

A report by human rights group Cristosal on May 29, 2023, detailed how lethal El Salvador’s war on the Central American country’s gangs has been: 153 people have died in custody since Pres. Nayib Bukele’s campaign began in March 2022. Targeting MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members, the effort has thrown about 68,000 people in El Salvador’s jails and prisons.

Photographs of corpses confirm mortuary reports that victims’ bodies show signs of “asphyxiation, [bone] fractures, significant bruising, lacerations and even perforations.” Malnutrition appeared to cause some deaths, while others resulted from a lack of medical care, medicine and food. According to the report, some prisoners were tortured with electrical shocks.

The campaign began when El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved special powers for prison officials and guards while also suspending some basic rights, including access to legal assistance. Legislation passed on July 26, 2023, authorized mass trials of up to 900 alleged gang members and provided for extended prison sentences of 60 years.

One of those who died in custody, Juan José Ibañez Garcia, 21, had no criminal connections, according to friends. He worked in a restaurant. His girlfriend, who voted for Bukele in 2019, said she felt cheated: “We had so many dreams—to be parents; to build a business together; to study together—and it’s all gone.”

Despite the savage crackdown—or because of it—Bukele enjoys a 90% approval rating. The president predicted on August 1, 2023, that El Salvador will have a homicide rate of just 2.2 per 100,000 this year, down from an astonishing 103 per 100,000 in 2015.

Human rights groups pointed out that the progress in controlling gangs has come at a high social cost, violating democratic principles, human rights and civil liberties. Added to that is the economic pain of thousands of broken families whose breadwinners have been swept up in the government offensive.  


Sources: The Guardian, The Mirror, Time

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