The government of El Salvador has deployed thousands of soldiers and police officers to a small town in a show of force after a police officer was killed by an alleged gang member.
More than 5,000 soldiers and 500 police officers encircled the northern city of Nueva Concepcion on Wednesday, with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele saying that they would seek out those responsible.
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“They will pay dearly for the murder of our hero,” Bukele said in a Twitter post, adding that forces would seek out “the entire gang structure and collaborators still hiding in that place”.
The Bukele government has launched a nationwide crackdown on the country’s gangs over the last year, winning widespread support from the public but sparking concerns about systematic human rights abuses.
The government declared a “state of exception”, suspending key civil liberties in March 2022 after gangs were blamed for a spate of killings.
The government has extended the order to keep those powers in place 14 times since, and human rights organisations and media outlets have documented cases of torture, disappearances and innocent people arbitrarily detained in prison.
Neighbourhoods once dominated by gangs have become safer for residents, who have largely expressed support for the government’s heavy-handed policies after years of violence and exploitation at the hands of the gangs.
But some experts and human rights groups have questioned how sustainable the public safety gains will prove in the long term.
Ante el homicidio ocurrido ayer, de un agente de nuestra @PNCSV, por parte de pandilleros que aún se encuentran en algunos sectores de nuestro país, escondidos, huyendo del Régimen de Excepción…
Desde esta madrugada, establecimos un cerco de seguridad alrededor del municipio de… pic.twitter.com/6r8BxuLBDb
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) May 17, 2023
Wednesday’s troop deployment to Nueva Concepcion is not the first time that the government has taken part in a large display of force. Last October, 2,000 soldiers and police officers surrounded the city of Comasagua, about 30km (20 miles) southwest of the capital of San Salvador, detaining 50 people in two days.
And in December, the government sealed off the neighbourhood of Soyapango, a suburb of the capital, with about 10,000 soldiers and police as government forces swept through the area detaining suspects.
More than 68,000 suspects have been detained since last year as part of the continuing crackdown, many of whom have been transferred to a new “mega-prison” opened in February, designed to incarcerate approximately 40,000 people total.