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Some worry El Salvador's president is amassing too much power


In El Salvador, a state of emergency has been declared, and security forces are cracking down on gangs. A roundup of suspected gang members began Sunday after more than 80 people were killed in one of the most violent weekends in recent memory. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, there is fear that El Salvador's president will exploit the crisis to suppress political opposition.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Salvador's attorney general said Tuesday that nearly 1,500 alleged gang members were captured with, quote, "not a single shot fired." The national police's Twitter feed is full of images of arrested gang members, and President Nayib Bukele's feed also shows his government's get-tough strategy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This video uploaded on his account shows prisoners, only in white boxer shorts, being hauled out of cells and pushed down to an open patio. Bukele warns that this tough treatment will continue if the killings don't stop. Residents say police and soldiers are restricting movements in and out of some neighborhoods.

CARMEN COLORADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: San Salvador resident Carmen Colorado, contacted by phone, says she's scared and only leaves the house to get food and take out the garbage. Saturday's death toll hit 62, the highest daily number of homicides in decades. Gang members killed people indiscriminately, even targeting street vendors and bus passengers. It's not clear what unleashed the wave of violence, says Jose Miguel Cruz, a gang expert at Florida International University.

JOSE MIGUEL CRUZ: From what we know, in the past, it's very likely that, you know, whatever agreement the government had with the gangs has apparently collapsed.

KAHN: President Bukele denies he's made any deals with violent gangs. But last year, U.S. officials slapped sanctions on members of his government who they say gave perks and other benefits to the gangs to quell the killings. Under the state of emergency, police can detain people without charges for up to two weeks, limit assembly and tap phones without a judge's order. Jeanette Aguilar, a Salvadoran security analyst and human rights advocate, says it's troubling that President Bukele rushed to take such extreme measures. She says he already controls the Congress, the police and the judiciary and has been accused of using his power to quash critics.

JEANETTE AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But she says the extreme violence has shaken his strongman image which has made him so popular. His approval ratings hover around 85%. The state of emergency is in effect for 30 days but can be extended.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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