SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) – El Salvador President Nayib Bukele asked his country’s Congress on Saturday to authorize a state of emergency to combat a spate of gang killings over the weekend.
Local media reported that about 50 people were killed, a level of violence not seen in years.
Bukele announced the motion on his social media accounts and mocked those who opposed the measure, saying, “Is the opposition coming out to defend the gang members?”
The decree, if approved by lawmakers, would suspend constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and relax detention rules for up to 30 days.
While Bukele has tried to show a tough stance on crime, the country’s enormously powerful street gangs have proved a double-edged sword for him.
In December, the US Treasury Department said Bukele’s government had secretly negotiated a truce with the gang leaders. This contradicted Bukele’s denials and created tensions between the two nations.
The US government claims the Bukele government bought support for the gangs with financial benefits and privileges for their jailed leaders, including prostitutes and cell phones.
The explosive allegations go to the heart of one of Bukele’s most touted achievements in office: a collapse in the country’s homicide rate.
The President responded sarcastically to the allegations via Twitter. “Cell phones and prostitutes in prisons? Money for the gangs? When did that happen? Didn’t they even check the date? How can you come up with such an obvious lie without anyone questioning you?”
Bukele vehemently denied the allegation when it was reported by local news site El Faro in August 2020.
In 2020, the Bukele government “provided financial incentives to the Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) to ensure incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low,” the statement said of the Treasury. “In the course of these negotiations with Luna and Marroquin, the gang leadership also agreed to provide political support to the Nuevas Ideas political party in the upcoming elections.”
Bukele’s New Ideas party has the majority in the El Salvador Congress.
The revelations created tensions between Bukele and the Biden administration. After the new Congress ousted the attorney general and judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in May, the US administration expressed concern about the country’s direction.
The US Agency for International Development announced that it would shift aid from government agencies in El Salvador to non-governmental organizations.
El Salvador’s new attorney general announced in June that the government was canceling the Organization of American States’ anti-corruption mission to the Central American country.
Bukele is extremely popular. He stepped into a political vacuum left by discredited traditional parties from left and right.