Wives, mothers worry for 'innocent' men netted in Salvadoran gang crackdown






She claims her husband is innocent; an honest laborer caught in an indiscriminate dragnet and whose family cannot make end…

She claims her husband is innocent; an honest laborer caught in an indiscriminate dragnet and whose family cannot make ends meet without him.

Hernandez's husband, 55-year-old mason Pedro Segovia, was apprehended on May 3 in the city of San Miguel, 139 kilometers (86 miles) east of the capital San Salvador, where he has been held ever since.

He was arrested, she said, on suspicion of collaborating with gangsters.

With her children, Hernandez, 25, traveled to "La Esperanza" prison where she waits for news with hundreds of others outside its high, grey walls.

President Nayib Bukele declared a 'war' on gangs after 87 people were killed in 72 hours of violence in March MARVIN RECINOS AFP

"I need to find out if they are going to give him to me, or what, because I need him at home," Hernandez told AFP.

For food, she and her children rely on hand-outs from others gathered outside the prison in what has become a make-shift camp.

They sleep on the sidewalk, on plastic or cardboard, under the stars.

'Perfect storm'

Bukele announced a state of emergency in late March following a bloody weekend in which 87 people -- many civilians, according to the government -- were killed in gang-related violence.

Since then, the police and military have been rounding up suspected gang members using emergency powers that have done away with the need for arrest warrants.

The small Central American country has also increased sentences for gang membership five-fold, to up to 45 years.

Relatives and rights groups have denounced the arrest of many, including minors, with no gang links MARVIN RECINOS AFP

The wave of detentions is unprecedented in the country of 6.5 million people that has suffered decades of violent crime driven by powerful gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

So far, 31,500 suspected gangsters have been detained.

With another 16,000 already behind bars before the campaign started, the government claims to have made a big dent in gang membership, thought to number some 70,000 in total.

But relatives and rights groups have denounced the arrest of many, including minors, with no gang links.

Amnesty International has said Bukele's state of emergency "has created a perfect storm of human rights violations."

On Wednesday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet recognized that dealing with gang violence is a "very, very challenging issue", but added "it should be done in compliance with international human rights laws."

'It is painful'

The El Faro news site published the results of an investigation this week that claimed the wave of violence in March came after the government broke a pact with the leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Last year, the US Treasury Department said Bukele's government had agreed a truce with the gangs in exchange for privileges for their imprisoned leaders.

A poll by Cid Gallup found that a majority of Salvadorans support Bukele's crackdown Marvin RECINOS AFP

The government has denied any such negotiations.

Another woman, 54-year-old Elizabeth Hernandez, insists her son was arrested without cause.

"For me the president has done an injustice... taking boys who have nothing to do with the others [gang members]," she told AFP outside the jail, where she said she had received no news.

"It is painful. I don't sleep and I don't eat knowing that my son is suffering."

Hernandez claimed to have seen a man released from jail whose "forehead was all beaten up."

Lucia Conner, for her part, begged Bukele "to exercise his conscience and release anyone who does not deserve it, who is unjustly imprisoned" -- including, she said, her son.

A recent poll by Cid Gallup found that a majority of Salvadorans support the crackdown.

"They (the gangs) have messed with people a lot," a soldier guarding the prison told AFP.

He pointed to a large scar left by a cut to his throat which he said was made by a gang member.

"Those who are gangsters, let them rot in jail," he said.

Experts say mass arrests are but a stop-gap as long as so many Salvadorans have no feasible exit from a life of penury.

With a poverty rate of 30.7 percent and sky-high unemployment that pushes ever more people to emigrate, a career as a gangster is one of few options available to those who remain.

They eke out a living by extorting protection money, and from drug dealing that brings them into regular conflict with one another.

This article was translated from the original in French. Agence France-Presse website

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