El Salvador’s government announced that the police were going to slow the rate of operations to catch large numbers of suspected criminals, but denied that this was in response to recent demands made by gang leaders.
Security Minister David Munguia Payes said that the number of large-scale operations would be scaled back in the coming days, prioritizing the capture of those accused of the most serious crimes. He said this was because of a lack of space to hold those arrested, and denied that the government was giving in to the demands of the gangs for operations to cease, reported La Prensa Grafica.
According to Munguia, the security forces are currently arresting an average of 250 people a day, adding to the population of 26,000 prisoners and 3,000 people in police holding cells.
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It’s true that El Salvador's penal system is heavily overcrowded, with a capacity for only 8,100 prisoners, and another 400 in holding cells. The number of inmates has shot up in recent years, from some 20,000 in 2008.
However, the timing of Munguia’s announcement, less than a month after the leaders of the country’s two biggest gangs asked the government to suspend operations in their territory, raises suspicions about its motive. Since March, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 have cut down on killings, as part of a truce that has brought the murder rate down by some 60 percent.
In July, jailed leaders presented a list of demands to the government. They said that, as they have committed to cutting violence, the government should do its part by suspending police operations in their territory, limiting themselves to making arrests when individuals are caught while committing a crime.
The government's lack of transparency during the entire process of dealing with the truce makes it difficult to know if it is accurate for Munguia to say that the slowing down of operations is nothing to do with this demand.
The announcement is a change in policy from the security minister -- in an interview in February this year, before the gang truce took hold, Munguia told El Faro that he was prepared to lock up another 10,000 members, if that’s what it took to defeat the gangs.
According to police figures from last year, there are currently 28,000 gang members in El Salvador -- roughly 10,000 of them in prison and the rest at liberty. If the government is arresting 250 people a day, most of whom are gang members as the Prensa Grafica report states, it should only take three months or so for the entire gang population to be behind bars.