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El Salvador extends emergency powers in year-long gang crackdown

The measures enjoy widespread support, but rights groups say they have led to arbitrary arrests and overcrowded prisons.

Lawmakers in El Salvador have again extended a state of emergency that suspends certain civil liberties as President Nayib Bukele’s government continues its fight against gangs.

The so-called state of emergency, extended for the 12th time late Wednesday by the Salvadoran Congress, went into effect last year and has led to about 66,000 arrests in the Central American country.

It allows arrests without a warrant, government access to private communications, and detentions without the right to a lawyer.

“We ask that this regime be extended for more time,” police director Mauricio Arriaza told reporters ahead of this week’s 30-day extension.

“We must continue to fight criminal groups, we must give Salvadoran families security for their lives and their property.”

The text of the legislative decree states that the “war against gangs waged by the government has given the Salvadoran people a sense of security”.

While the emergency measures enjoy widespread support in El Salvador, human rights groups and United Nations experts have raised serious concerns about due process violations, arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of detainees.

Last month, human rights groups and the Salvadoran police union told Al Jazeera that an increasing number of Salvadorans held under the state of emergency have been “re-arrested” upon release after being released on bail or having their cases dropped.

That raised new fears that Bukele’s government plans to ensure that prisoners remain behind bars, especially ahead of the 2024 elections.

“From the beginning, we pointed out that it was not crazy to think that the state of emergency could last until the elections,” Eduardo Escobar, a lawyer and director of the Salvadoran NGO Citizen Action (Accion Ciudadana), told Al Jazeera on time.

Bukele has said about 80 percent of El Salvador is under the control of criminal gangs, with a state of emergency introduced last year following a spate of killings attributed to the violent groups.

According to official figures, the crackdown has already led to 65,795 arrests and 2,513 firearms seized.

In January, Humans Rights Watch denounced “severe overcrowding” in El Salvador’s prisons as a result of the increase in detentions.

A month later, Bukele unveiled what he called the largest prison in the Americas region, intended to hold 40,000 suspected gang members — more than doubling the country’s current total capacity of 30,000 inmates in 20 prisons.