Salvadorans demand release of innocents jailed in anti-gang sweep

FILE PHOTO: Gang members wait to be taken to their cell after 2000 gang members were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, according to El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele, in Tecoluca, El Salvador, in this handout distributed to Reuters on March 15, 2023. Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Handout via REUTERS

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Several hundred people in El Salvador took to the streets on Tuesday to protest the year-long anti-gang policies of President Nayib Bukele, many demanding the release of relatives they say have been unjustly caught up in the sweeping dragnet.

In the capital San Salvador, many chanted "freedom for the innocent," in a march on Congress that attracted an estimated 500 protesters, according to organizer Samuel Ramirez.

Bukele's broadly popular crime-fighting initiative has led to the jailing of more than 65,000 suspected gang members, part of an unprecedented assault on the violent Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, among others, that for decades have terrorized the Central American nation of around 6 million.

The so-called state of exception authorized by Bukele's congressional allies followed the murders, blamed on gangs, of nearly 90 people over a single weekend in March 2022. The policy suspends some constitutional rights, including the right to a lawyer and court approval of preliminary detention.

Holding a sign addressed to Bukele, 56-year-old housewife Maria Ruiz described the arrest of her husband Manuel Argumedo as an injustice.

"I'm not against what (Bukele) is doing. He's doing good things, but it's also an injustice because he's capturing people unfairly. There are some who didn't do anything wrong."

Ruiz explained that masked police arrested her husband at their home last year, taking him away even as he pleaded that he was not a gang member, had no tattoos nor any criminal record.

Another protester, Rosa Ramos, 43, called for the release of her two adult sons detained over the past couple months, despite what she says were no gang ties.

"It hurts," she said, hoisting photos of her imprisoned sons. "We ask for justice and for our children's freedom."

Zaira Navas, a former head of police investigations who now works for rights nonprofit Cristosal, recently told El Faro newspaper that a preliminary study from the organization shows that fewer than 30% of detainees during the past year were gang members.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Valentine Hilaire; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Cynthia Osterman)

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