Thousands of Salvadoran soldiers and police officers on Tuesday surrounded the central agricultural region of Cabanas – home to some 150,000 people – as part of President Nayib Bukele’s crackdown on gang activity.
Bukele imposed a state of emergency in March 2022 that has seen tens of thousands of alleged gang members rounded up, raising alarms from rights groups.
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Groups such Human Rights Watch and El Salvador-based Cristosal have documented widespread abuses, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and torture.
Security forces have on several occasions besieged key cities to carry out house-to-house searches for gang members, but it is the first time an entire department (administrative region) is being cordoned off. The Latin American country is divided into 14 departments.
“Since this morning, 7,000 soldiers and 1,000 police officers have established a security fence around the entire department of Cabanas,” Bukele wrote on Twitter, now called X.
“Their job will be to prevent gang members from leaving the area and cut off all supply lines belonging to terrorist groups.”
He said the blockade would last until “the operatives can extract all gang members”.
Trucks loaded with soldiers were seen in the streets of the towns of Tejutepeque and Ilobasco.
“Since this morning we have noticed the presence of soldiers,” radio host Reina Navarrete told AFP news agency from another town, Victoria.
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 Cabanas during a previous raid in 2022.
Bukele imposed the state of emergency, which allows arrests without a warrant, after a particularly bloody weekend in March 2022 left 87 civilians dead at the hands of gang members.
Since then, some 72,000 alleged gang members have been arrested.
Last week, politicians passed a temporary measure allowing for up to 900 people to be tried at once.
Collective trials will further violate “the rights to an adequate defence, to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence,” Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas told AFP.