SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador said on Sunday most people support a months-long state of emergency that has gathered tens of thousands of suspects in a crackdown on violent street gangs.
While critics say the campaign violated human rights and swept away seemingly innocent people, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas said Salvadorans support the measure.
“People are afraid of going back to the way they were, now that they have started to live without this scourge,” Escobar Alas said.
Salvadoran gangs, estimated to have some 70,000 members in their ranks, have long controlled swathes of territory and extort and kill with impunity.
Since March, the country’s congress has granted extension after extension to the initial 30-day emergency decree that suspends certain constitutional rights.
“People don’t want the violence to come back,” the archbishop told a news conference. “They don’t just want these things to continue, they want them to move forward, to end the violence.
His comments came the same day relatives of young men caught in the raids tried to march to the presidential palace to demand their release, saying they were innocent. The police stopped the march before it reached its goal by erecting barricades.
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.
Escobar Alas said he had heard the families’ complaints, and he urged President Nayib Bukele’s government to avoid “those margins of error” and ensure fast and expeditious hearings to release those who may be innocent.
After the gangs were charged with 62 murders on March 26, Bukele sought extraordinary powers.
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 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.
Authorities have made waves of arrests often with very little evidence. Typically, those arrested are accused of belonging to or being associated with one of the country’s powerful street gangs.
Civil and human rights groups say arbitrary arrests are common and when detainees finally see a judge, they are almost automatically jailed for six months pending trial. Some people have died while incarcerated.