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El Salvador sent about 8,000 soldiers and police officers to comb the rural province of Cabañas for street gang members Tuesday, in one of the most massive raids since President Nayib Bukele declared a crackdown on the gangs in March 2022.
About 1,000 police and 7,000 soldiers fanned out across Cabañas province to set up checkpoints on all roads leading in or out. The raid followed a weekend shooting attack on a police patrol vehicle that wounded two officers.
Bukele claims members of the country’s notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs have fled to the province to avoid the crackdown. He refers to the gang members as “terrorists.”
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“Cabañas has become the place with the largest number of terrorists, who came seeking to use the rural areas to hide,” Bukele wrote in a tweet. “This massive operation will guarantee greater security for the area, and we will not end it until we find all the criminals.”
In this photo provided by El Salvador’s presidential press office, inmates identified by authorities as gang members are moved at the prison, Terrorism Confinement Center, in Tecoluca, El Salvador, on March 15, 2023. (El Salvador presidential press office via AP, File)
Tuesday’s action was the fifth such mass raid since the crackdown started; in May, the government sent 5,000 soldiers and police to the northern township of Nueva Concepcion after a police officer was killed there.
Police dismantled several camps they described as gang hideouts in Cabañas during a previous raid in 2022.
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Bukele’s government suspended constitutional rights and has detained 71,976 people accused of being in gangs, or 1% of the country’s population. They have been jammed into prisons, fueling waves of accusations of human rights violations. As little as 30% of those detained have clear ties to organized crime, the human rights group Cristosal estimates.
Last week, El Salvador’s congress approved new rules that will allow courts to try accused gang members in mass trials, in an effort to expedite tens of thousands of cases for those detained under the crackdown.
The Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gangs long controlled much of the country, demanding money in exchange for allowing even the most basic economic activities. The crackdown on them has proved widely popular in El Salvador.
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In past raids, the government rounded up large groups of people often based on how they looked and where they lived. It has also carried out mass arraignments, at which judges faced anywhere from 50 to 500 detainees at once, often not considering documents and other evidence that speak to the character of those facing charges.