San Salvador, (AFP) – El Salvador’s president threatened Tuesday to stop catering to imprisoned gang members as he pursued his crackdown in the wake of a killing spree that led to a state of emergency and measures that drew international condemnation.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony for new police officers and soldiers, President Neb Bokhel said that if gangs “unleashed a wave of crime, we would cut food in prisons”.
“There are rumors that they (the gangs) want to start getting revenge on honest random people,” Bukele said. If they did, there wouldn’t even be a single meal in the prisons. I swear to God they won’t eat a grain of rice, let’s see how long it lasts.”
They must remain calm and release themselves; At least indoors they will continue to live and eat two meals a day.”
Previously, Bukele had ordered food for gang members held in Salvadoran prisons to be reduced to two meals a day, confiscated prisoners’ mattresses and posted a video of inmates walking frogs through hallways and down stairs.
In the wake of the spate of murders in late March, Bukele declared a state of emergency that suspended some constitutional rights and arrested about 6,000 street gang members.
The president also ordered the construction of a new high-security prison, accommodating 20,000 inmates.
The move drew criticism from human rights organizations in El Salvador and abroad who warn that suspending basic rights could open the door to human rights abuses. The Office of the Public Prosecutor for Human Rights in El Salvador said it had received 67 complaints related to human rights, including 33 complaints related to arbitrary arrest.
“We are deeply concerned about the series of measures recently adopted in El Salvador in response to the rise in mass killings,” UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said on Tuesday.
“5747 people were arrested without an arrest warrant, and some of them were subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Throssell said.
And, as usual, Bukele shrugged off the criticism.
I don’t care what international organizations say. The President said: Let them come here to protect our people. They can take their gang members if they want, and we’ll give them all.
El Salvador’s Congress has also tightened penalties for crimes committed by gang members. The country’s notorious street gangs effectively control many districts of the capital.
The state of emergency restricts freedom of association, the right to be informed of rights upon arrest, and access to a lawyer. The government also extended the length of time a person can be held without charge to 15 days from 72 hours and allowed authorities to intercept suspects’ communications without a judge’s approval.
Police and soldiers have already cordoned off neighborhoods looking for gangsters from house to house and watching who enters and exits areas.
In March, Bukele posted a video showing guards with Bailey batons nearly forcing inmates to walk, run and even go down stairs with their arms held behind their necks or back.
On one occasion, a handcuffed guest descended on a flight of stairs where a guard forced him down. The prisoner groaned and then had to get back on his feet to continue running.
The inmates were stripped of their underwear and took their bedding.
Bukele is very popular. He entered a political vacuum left by the discredited traditional parties from the left and the right.