El Salvador boosts jail time for gang members after rash of murders

Detainees are moved out of detention center by police officer after El Salvador's Congress approved emergency powers, in San Salvador
Detainees are moved out of a police detention center by a police officer after El Salvador's Congress approved on Sunday emergency powers that temporarily suspended some constitutional protections after the country recorded a sharp rise in killings attributed to criminal gangs, in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 30, 2022. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

March 31, 2022

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – El Salvador’s gang lords and their followers will face prison sentences ranging from 20 to 45 years under penal reforms passed by Congress on Wednesday in the wake of 89 registered murders, allegedly by groups like MS-13, over the weekend.

President Nayib Bukele’s administration invoked emergency powers on Sunday to temporarily suspend or restrict some constitutional protections like free assembly after 62 murders on Saturday alone. Security and human rights experts said it was the most murders in one day so far this century.

In a followup action, members of his ruling party pushed through substantial increases in prison sentences. Convicted gang lords will now be sentenced to 40 to 45 years in jail, compared with six to nine years previously, while other gang members will be sentenced to 20 to 30 years, up from three to five years earlier.

“These reforms are intended to impose harsh penalties for these terrorists who believe they’re above authority and play with the lives of Salvadorans,” Justice and Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro told the press.

In the past few days, some 2,500 alleged gang members have been captured by the police for possible “acts of terrorism,” and Bukele has ordered tougher measures in prisons and flooded neighborhoods with soldiers and military personnel.

An estimated 70,000 gang members now operate in El Salvador and fight for control of extortion and drug operations throughout the Central American country, though groups like Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, originated in the United States.

Amnesty International called on the Salvadoran government Wednesday to respect human rights as it tries to rein in crime, expressing concern about reported unprovoked arrests and food rationing in prisons.

“We call on President Nayib Bukele and the State of El Salvador to … guarantee that the design and implementation of public security policies put respect for human rights at the center,” Amnesty said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Kylie Madry; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)