El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has vowed to escalate his controversial “war on gangs” after three police officers were killed in what appeared to be the first major reaction to a security crackdown that critics have called one of the most dramatic in recent Latin American history.
Bukele’s government claims more than 43,000 Salvadorians have been thrown in jail since it imposed a “state of exception” in late March – leaving almost 2% of the country’s entire adult population behind bars.
On Tuesday, the millennial populist announced he would intensify the clampdown after the trio of officers were killed during a shootout in Santa Ana, a city 42 miles north-west of the capital, San Salvador.
“If they think this will make us step back from the war on gangs, they’re mistaken… it will be the complete opposite… We’re going to ramp up our war,” declared Bukele, who sarcastically calls himself “the world’s coolest dictator”.
“If they’d thought the full force of the state had been unleashed on these criminals, now they’ll really see what unleashing the full force of the state on means,” Bukele added, comparing his crackdown to chemotherapy that was needed to destroy the cancer of crime.
“If we stop now they’ll regroup … and it will become impossible to eradicate this cancer from our country.”
Critics say the security offensive – which led to 43,086 arrests between 27 March and 27 June – has become an indiscriminate dragnet that has ensnared thousands of impoverished young people with little or no connection to El Salvador’s gangs.
More than 50 prisoners have died behind bars in mysterious circumstances, according to Jorge Beltrán, a local crime reporter who is tracking the deaths.
“The reality is that in El Salvador it is now a crime to be young. You’re not safe anywhere,” the wife of one prisoner, Mari Hernández, told the Guardian during a visit to San Salvador last month.
In early June Amnesty International activists traveled to El Salvador to publicly accuse its government of committing “massive human rights violations” during the crackdown, which polls show most of El Salvador’s 6 million citizens support.
Bukele, a social media-savvy populist with a Trump-like proclivity for bashing independent journalists, has responded to growing international criticism with scorn.
On Tuesday El Salvador’s president, who boasts some of the world’s highest approval ratings, alleged foreign NGOs and “media outlets who were mates with the gangs” would be celebrating the death of the three police officers, who he claimed died after being ambushed by members of the Barrio 18 gang.
“Foreign human rights groups and NGOs won’t say anything because they don’t care,” Bukele said. “When a gang member’s taken to prison they say: ‘Oh, poor chap, he won’t eat well behind bars.’ But at least he’s alive.”
Óscar Martínez, a prominent Salvadorian journalist, hit back on Twitter: “What has happened is a reprehensible act and a criminal episode that must be punished. But the only person taking advantage of these killings to divide and intensify his hate speech from him is [Bukele].”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism