SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – Hundreds of handcuffed Salvadoran gang members were displayed before assembled reporters on Saturday, a vivid show of President Nayib Bukele’s policy of confronting them and the violent crime they are accused of committing.
Some 600 members of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival Barrio 18 made up the bulk of the detentions that were announced on Friday, following a one-week U.S.-backed round-up of Central American gangs that also netted arrests in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.
The detainees paraded before the press on Saturday, a common tactic that predates Bukele, have been charged with murder, kidnapping and human trafficking, among other crimes, according to officials.
In April, Bukele provoked the ire of rights groups when he published on social media jarring pictures of hundreds of semi-naked jailed gang members, pressed tightly together in rows, despite the raging pandemic.
At the time, the inmates were being punished for an outbreak of violence.
Security Minister Rogelio Rivas called the majority of the newly-detained “terrorists” in remarks after they were assembled in an open-air plaza by heavily-armed soldiers, nearly all the detainees wearing masks and with their faces, many tattooed, looking down.
Government figures show that the murder rate has fallen by nearly half so far this year compared to the same period last year, which Bukele argues is due to a larger military and police presence on streets as well as in jails believed to be controlled by the gangs.
In September, online news site El Faro published an investigation revealing an alleged negotiation between the government and MS-13 over reducing homicides in exchange for other benefits, including electoral support for Bukele, an accusation the president has denied.
The latest round-up could be meant to refute the idea that the government is negotiating with the gangs, security analyst Jeannette Aguilar said in an interview.
(This story has been refiled to fix typographical error)
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Nick Zieminski)