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El Salvador's president conducts gang crackdown, prompting human rights concerns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been 11 days since a state of emergency was enacted in El Salvador. Officials say more than 6,000 people have been arrested under new powers given to police and the military to round up suspected gang members. This crackdown followed a spate of killings last month. El Salvador's president, a 40-year-old leader with an unconventional style, is blasting international critics who say he is violating human rights.

We're joined now by NPR international correspondent Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So can you just tell us - how did all of this start?

KAHN: Eighty-seven people were killed over a three-day period ending on March 27, and that just really rocked the nation. The homicide rate had been dropping in El Salvador, and the president, Nayib Bukele, had taken credit for that. But critics attribute it more to Bukele actually brokering a secret pact with the gangs to reduce the homicide rate. Bukele has long denied that. But many say that pact obviously fell apart and sparked the killings, which were brutal. Some people were just shot just for being out on the streets.

CHANG: Wow. And do the president's moves now - I mean, do they have support from the people in El Salvador?

KAHN: Yes, pretty widely. The gangs in El Salvador, like the MS-13, have controlled for decades many parts of the country, especially in poor urban neighborhoods. And they extort, they kill and corrupt, and there is great resentment for them.

And President Bukele is very popular in El Salvador, particularly for his handling of the gangs. He's young. He's quite informal. He's a voracious tweeter. He portrays himself as the protector of the country - someone who is restoring security there. His Twitter feed now is just full of images of shirtless, tattooed gang members being arrested and thrown in prison. But that said, there are many concerns that he has consolidated a lot of power, and this new state of emergency is giving him even more.

CHANG: Yeah. Tell us more about those concerns. Like, who's raising them?

KAHN: The concerns are that people just suspected of being in a gang can be - they are being arrested, taken from their homes without search warrants, and held for up to 15 days without charges. There are so many people being round up that police stations are just overflowing. There are accusations of inhumane treatment.

The Congress, which Bukele's party controls, has given the government new powers, including the ability to intercept communications, and Bukele has already been accused of spying on journalists and activists in the past. Here's Ruth Lopez. She's with the human rights group Cristosal in El Salvador.

RUTH LOPEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: She says, "Bukele's government already has enough tools to crack down on the gangs. These extraordinary ones weren't necessary."

CHANG: And how is Bukele reacting to criticism of the way he's handling this crisis now?

KAHN: He's long been dismissive of human rights groups, especially international groups accusing him of authoritarian moves. Here's just a little taste of that. This week, he sarcastically told international monitors if they're so worried about his treatment of gang members, then come and get them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He says, "if you love them so much, they're yours. We'll give them to you two for one."

The timing of all this is really inconvenient for him, too. He had planned to launch a billion-dollar bitcoin bond last month. Bukele is a star in the international bitcoin community. He made bitcoin legal tender in El Salvador, saying it will solve much of the country's economic problems. He's also had to pull out of this week's big bitcoin conference in Miami. He was a keynote speaker there tomorrow. So he has a lot riding on how he handles this latest chapter in his war with El Salvador's gangs.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DAYDREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.