BARRIO – President Nayib Bukele, who declared a state of emergency in the country earlier this year to squash gang violence, sent 8,500 soldiers and 1,500 police officers to surround the city of Soyapango on Saturday.
“Right now we have 185 people who have been arrested,” Defense Minister Rene Merino told reporters.
The president had announced last month a plan to use troops to surround cities while house-by-house searches are conducted for gang members. Soyapango was first on the list.
Almost 60,000 suspected gang members have been arrested since the launch of the state of emergency in March, which has prompted humanitarian groups to question what they see as heavy-handed tactics.
Merino said the police and military cordon surrounding the city of Soyapango would remain “as long as it is necessary.”
Residents of the city have breathed a sigh of relief over the slow disappearance of gang members threatening them and extorting money.
“It is quite scary to talk about what has happened here,” said Susana Aviles, a 36-year-old single mother. She told AFP that gang members had threatened to kill her if she didn’t pay them $100 a month to keep her clothing business open.
She didn’t have the money, so she closed her doors until April, when the improving security situation encouraged her to re-open.
The state of emergency allows arrests without a warrant, and came after a surge of gang violence left 87 people dead between 25 and 27 March.
Prior to the state of emergency in March, Salvadoran jails held some 16,000 gang members, most of them members of the MS-13 or Barrio 18 gangs.