‘Punitive Populism’

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Salvadoran police have arrested more than 10,000 alleged gang members as of this week, nearly three weeks after the government declared a state of emergency in response to the killings of dozens of people by criminal gangs, VICE reported Thursday.

In late March, populist President Nayib Bukele declared a 30-day state of emergency after gang members randomly shot 62 people in a single day. The incident has been described as the worst violence the country has experienced since the end of the civil war three decades ago.

The state of emergency allowed authorities to tap into communications of Salvadorans without a court order, arrest people without evidence, and restrict citizens’ rights to legal counsel and freedom of assembly.

Bukele has hailed the police operations, even as human rights groups and analysts have criticized the arrests as “punitive populism,” according to the Associated Press. Critics noted the detentions are more show than substance. Others worry that the detained are not going through due process and that their civil liberties are being infringed.

Some Salvadorans said police officers have allegedly detained family and acquaintances who have no links to the gangs.

Meanwhile, El Salvador’s parliament – currently controlled by Bukele’s party – passed a controversial law that would punish anyone who shares information about gangs with up to 15 years in prison. This has prompted news outlets to stop covering gang violence out of fear of the law.

Following his 2019 election, Bukele promised to fight gang violence and root out a corrupt political establishment. But the president has been accused of increased authoritarianism and colluding with gangs.

Last year, the United States accused Bukele’s government of providing “financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street” in 2020 to ensure that the number of “confirmed homicides” remained low, the Washington Post noted.

Bukele has denied the allegations, but analysts suggested that gang violence last month was a sign that the agreement collapsed.

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