Almost 69 percent of detainees are accused of belonging to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, officials say. Rights groups have denounced arbitrary arrest of many people, including minors, with no gang links.

The small Central American country has increased sentences for gang membership five-fold, to up to 45 years.
The small Central American country has increased sentences for gang membership five-fold, to up to 45 years. (Reuters Archive)

El Salvador has arrested some 50,000 suspected gang members since President Nayib Bukele launched a "war on gangs" in March on criminal groups harassing the country, the head of the country's police force announced.

"We can inform the Salvadoran people that we have already reached 50,000 recorded detentions during the period of the emergency regime," said Mauricio Arriaza, director of the National Civil Police on Tuesday.

Arriaza, as well as Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro and Defence Minister Rene Merino, appeared on Tuesday in front of parliament to request an extension of the emergency powers, which have done away with the need for arrest warrants.

They were first enacted in March and have been prolonged on a month-by-month basis.

The small Central American country has also increased sentences for gang membership five-fold, to up to 45 years.

To house some of the detainees, Bukele ordered the construction of a gigantic prison for 40,000 gang members in a rural area of the city of Tecoluca, in the centre of the country, which should be ready before the end of the year.

"The results of the emergency regime have been overwhelming, we have had a strong impact on these terrorist structures," Villatoro said on Tuesday in his report on the gang crackdowns.

READ MORE: El Salvador nets nearly 42,000 suspected gangsters since crackdown

Surge in detentions

Almost 69 percent of the detainees are accused of belonging to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang –– also known as MS-13 –– followed by the Surenos faction of the Barrio 18 gang (17.7 percent) and the Revolucionarios faction of the same group (12.7 percent).

Rights groups have denounced the arbitrary arrest of many people, including minors, with no gang links.

In different operations, the police and the army have seized more than a million dollars, in addition to 1,283 weapons.

More than 1,500 vehicles, as well as drugs and cell phones, have also been seized.

The wave of detentions is unprecedented in the country of 6.5 million people, who have suffered decades of violent crime driven by powerful gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18.

These gangs count some 70,000 members, most of them now behind bars, according to the authorities.

READ MORE: El Salvador arrests 10,000 in ongoing crackdown on gangs

Source: AFP