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Police in El Salvador have arrested over 36,000 people to curb gang violence


El Salvador is under a state of emergency. Police and military have special authority to arrest suspected gang members. Nearly 40,000 have been arrested in just a couple of months. This is all an effort to curb the country's soaring murder rate. El Salvador's president says it's working, but critics are alarmed. Amnesty International is out with a new report finding widespread human rights violations. Arjun Chaudhuri was part of the Amnesty team on the ground there.

ARJUN CHAUDHURI: We were in El Salvador for nearly three weeks. We documented the cases of actually more than 30 people. What we saw are people being detained for really arbitrary reasons, such as having tattoos, for having prior criminal charges. And we also saw people being arrested, you know, just for being present in poor and marginalized neighborhoods where gangs traditionally operate, even though they don't necessarily have any sort of connection to gangs.

RASCOE: And so once these people are detained, your report also found that they're not getting, like, basic due process. Can you talk about that? What's happening once they are detained?

CHAUDHURI: So we heard examples of hearings in which there are hundreds of people and maybe just a couple, three or four public defenders to defend that vast quantity of people. And judges are kind of ruling on the fate of hundreds of people in just a few hours. So obviously, in that sort of context, I mean, there's no judicial guarantees, really.

RASCOE: And what are they being charged with? They're just being accused of being a part of a gang?

CHAUDHURI: Yeah, exactly. So the vast majority of people are being charged with being part of a criminal organization. We had one case, for example, of two cousins, aged 14 and 15. They were playing football outside their home, and police came and arrested them. And the reason they gave for their detention was that they had rough-looking faces. That's what they told their parents. Anyhow, that's - those are sort of stories that we're hearing across the country.

RASCOE: For those families and just the families of anyone who's being detained, like, how are they being affected? How are they coping with their loved ones being detained?

CHAUDHURI: There's a huge impact on families. Again, like, speaking to the magnitude of the problem, there are allegedly 38,000 people arrested at the moment. And the families of these 38,000 people have basically no information about their well-being or occasionally also the whereabouts of their detained relatives. So that obviously creates a major psychological impact. So, yeah, it's a real kind of psychological crisis that is brewing in society as well, a mental health crisis.

RASCOE: Do you have any, like, specific examples of some of the cases that you saw being prosecuted?

CHAUDHURI: We spoke, for example, to one university student, and he was detained by police and accused of being part of a gang. He told us that during those - I think it was - two or three weeks that he was in detention, he lost 20 kilos, which is obviously a huge amount. The food was rationed because the government wasn't providing kind of adequate nutrition. And then we spoke to another person who had been released from jail. He was, in fact, a teenager, aged 16. And he was tortured. I mean, his - he told us that he was subject to kind of ill treatment both by authorities as well as by other prisoners who were gang members.

There's serious overcrowding as well. Nearly 2% of the adult population of El Salvador is currently under arrest. And so obviously, you can imagine the overcrowding that's being experienced, alongside - yeah - the situation with the lack of adequate food, medication, medical care. So, yeah, it's a terrible, terrible situation.

RASCOE: Does the government have any type of response to - this seems like it wouldn't be sustainable. Like, do they have any type of response, or are they - they're just saying that it's working, and they're going to keep it up?

CHAUDHURI: I mean, one of the issues we're seeing at the moment as well is that the government is not listening at all to the perspectives of civil society, of the families of victims. They're just kind of doubling down. There is obviously a problem regarding kind of widespread violence by gangs. But the solution is not to arbitrarily detain thousands of people who don't necessarily have any sort of connection to gangs. And also, just - it's also really important that the international community step up. But there's a real need for public statements and for real, genuine action to protect the rights of thousands of people that are being arbitrarily detained at the moment in El Salvador.

RASCOE: Arjun Chaudhuri, campaigner for Mexico and Central America at Amnesty International. Thanks for being with us.

CHAUDHURI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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