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Published: Thursday July 31, 2014 MYT 11:25:12 AM
Updated: Thursday July 31, 2014 MYT 11:25:12 AM

El Salvador detains Spanish priest for smuggling cell phones into jail

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvadoran police detained a Spanish priest known for supporting a fragile gang truce over allegations he smuggled cell phones into jail, police said, a move questioned later on Wednesday by El Salvador's president.

Father Antonio Rodriguez, who is suspected of ties to a jailed gang leader, was stopped at a police checkpoint while driving to his home in the capital city, San Salvador, early on Wednesday, authorities said.

Rodriguez, who has used job training workshops to help reintegrate former gang members into society, will be held for 72 hours while authorities continue their investigation, Police Chief Mauricio Landaverde said.

After the announcement, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren praised Rodriguez's work reintegrating former criminals and lamented his detention.

"The Attorney General has to give a good explanation to the population about the reason behind the detention," he said.

Cell phones, which can be used to coordinate murders and extortion by incarcerated gang members, are banned in El Salvadoran prisons.

Some gangs, including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 opponents, are struggling to preserve a fragile truce brokered in March 2012 in a bid to reduce high homicide rates in the impoverished Central American country.

The truce, which is backed by the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States, helped cut the murder rate in El Salvador in mid-2013 to about five per day, a 10-year low, from around 12 a day.

However, the truce appeared to be crumbling by 2014 as the murder rate shot up nearly 70 percent over last year.

A lawyer for Rodriguez declined to comment immediately.

Police said they arrested an additional 127 people, including police and judicial system employees, in separate raids on Wednesday morning for suspected drug trafficking.

(Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Simon Gardner, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

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