Rights group says President Nayib Bukele has reduced gang violence by replacing it with state violence.

As El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele embarks on his second term in office, an international rights group has warned that his war on gangs has created a spiralling human rights crisis.

As of February 2024, Bukele’s draconian two-year campaign, which has seen the authorities detain about 78,000 people, has caused 235 deaths in state custody, said Amnesty International on Wednesday. Citing a local rights group, it also reported 327 cases of enforced disappearances.

“Reducing gang violence by replacing it with state violence cannot be a success,” said Amnesty’s Americas director Ana Piquer in a statement. The Salvadoran government had adopted “disproportionate measures”, she said, denying, minimising and concealing human rights violations.

Bukele launched his war on gangs in March 2022, slashing homicides to the lowest rate in three decades after imposing a state of emergency that suspended the need for arrest warrants and the right to a fair trial, among other civil liberties. Prison overcrowding currently stands at 148 percent, according to Amnesty.

After Bukele consolidated power in a landslide win in February’s election, the rights group warned the situation looks set to worsen. “If this course is not corrected, the instrumentalization of the criminal process and the establishment of a policy of torture in the prison system could persist,” it said.

On Tuesday, Minister of Justice and Security Gustavo Villatoro pledged there would be no let-up in the government’s campaign against the gangs, and promised to “eradicate this endemic evil”.

“This war against these terrorists will continue,” he said on state television.

Piquer said that Bukele had created a “false illusion” that he had found “the magic formula to solve the very complex problems of violence and criminality in a seemingly simple way”. She described the international community’s response as “timid”.

“The international community must respond in a robust, articulate and forceful manner, condemning any model of public security that is based on human rights violations,” she said.


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