El Salvador Wants to Hold Mass Trials of Accused Gang Members

Up to 900 defendants could be prosecuted at the same time as a result of the new measure.
Alleged gang members in the Esperanza Prison, known as "Mariona", in San Salvador, El Salvador on June 07, 2023. Photo provided by the Presidency of El Salvador / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

El Salvador wants to hold mass trials for tens of thousands of alleged gang members who were arrested during a massive crackdown on crime in the country.

The country’s congress approved the legislation on Wednesday as a way to expedite legal proceedings following the arrests of over 70,000 people after President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency in the Central American nation 16 months ago. Government officials said that the new measure could allow up to 900 defendants to be prosecuted together for “illicit association” (gang membership is illegal) when people are thought to be part of the same criminal cell or the same part of the country.


The most recent reform is the latest in a string of changes to the country’s criminal code as the Bukele government attempts to clamp down on violence and crime related to the country’s two largest gangs: Barrio 18 and MS-13. The legislation also increases prison time from 45 to 60 years for alleged gang leaders. 

The mass arrests have reportedly greatly reduced homicides in El Salvador which was once one of the region’s most violent, and bolstered Bukele’s already thriving popularity with his growing base. But the nature of the detentions, as well as the subsequent changes to the penal code, have raised serious concerns from both local and international human rights watchdog groups about widespread abuses from authorities during the state of emergency. There is potential for more, they say. 

“This practice is illegal and from every point of view, violates the principle of innocence,” Salvadoran security analyst Jeannette Aguilar told VICE News. “It’s abhorrent and represents a serious risk of threat in general to the population.”


Aguilar said that “they are perverse reforms in terms of the violation of fundamental guarantees of due process of human rights.”

The Bukele government said that those arrested who are found not to have links to criminal groups should be freed. Roughly 6,000 people who were arrested during the state of emergency have been released.

Bukele declared the state of emergency in March 2022 after an uptick in violence and has alleged that 80 percent of the country is under the control of criminal gangs. The government claimed that its forceful approach to security was necessary to tackle organized crime, and has proved popular with many as violence has dipped during the ongoing war against the gangs. Other countries in the region have also moved to mimic his hardline approach — most recently Honduras.

But Aguilar, the security analyst, said that while the crackdown “had without a doubt generated an immediate effect” against the gangs and created “an apparent tranquillity in the communities,” she doubted it would have a long-term change.

“A policy that is based on mass arrests and not a comprehensive approach to violence, that includes why more children and young people join these groups, is not addressing the root causes,” she said. “The gangs will continue to cultivate new soldiers in their territories, as they have done in recent years. So, what we see is a withdrawal, a restructuring, I would say temporarily in their territories, but that can be reconfigured within the prisons.”

El Salvador’s prisons have long served as bases of operations for the gangs, where the inmates control the facilities and use them as bunkers. They also operate extortion rackets out of the nation’s penitentiaries. Aguilar suggested that people caught up in the arrests, especially young men who are not already members of the gangs, will be recruited within the prisons to join.