El Salvador’s president is defending a policy to destroy tombstones that list gang member affiliations, likening it to Germany’s erasure of Nazism symbols following their defeat in World War II.
Inmates were ordered to destroy tombstones that reference either the 18th Street Gang or La Mara Salvatrucha, otherwise known as MS-13, which is the latest leg of President Nayib Bukele’s nationwide crackdown on the criminal organizations.
“Because [Germany] had to erase Nazism, and to erase Nazism, they had to be tough on Nazi ideology — not just arrest the Nazis,” the president said Thursday.
“Here in El Salvador…we did have a gang problem,” he said. “It’s a similar issue, because they haven’t just done us so much harm, like the Nazis, they haven’t been just ruthless, like the Nazis, they haven’t just been cruel, like the Nazis, but they are also interwoven in Salvadoran society. They are everywhere, even in the cemeteries.”
The aggressive tactics have been criticized by members of human rights groups, according to The Telegraph. The British newspaper reported that the dragnet has resulted in some people, including children, being imprisoned without due process, and that there have been deaths in custody.
But Mr. Bukele hasn’t apologized for the tough approach to the gangs that’s resulted in the homicide rate being cut in half since last year and his approval rating skyrocketing to 90% in some polls.
The president also made a distinction between the tombstones being destroyed and the regular respect for the dead that deceased gang members are owed.
“We are not prohibiting gang members from having graves,” Mr. Bukele said. “What we are prohibiting is for their tombstone to read: ‘MS-13’ or ‘18th Street Gang.’ In El Salvador…those symbols are banned.”
He said gang symbols aren’t allowed anywhere in El Salvador: “Not in graffiti, not at home, not on people’s bodies, not on people’s graves.”
Mr. Bukele celebrated the opening of a massive, 40,000-person prison last month, which is thought to be the largest in the Americas.
More than 64,000 people have been arrested in the past year after Mr. Bukele pushed El Salvador’s legislature to pass a state of exception, which allows the country to suspend certain rights in an effort to carry out the gang crackdown.
That includes warrantless arrests, the government accessing private communications and suspects no longer having a right to a lawyer.
The president also took a shot at the developed world for expecting that El Salvador should abide by their standards while he tries to improve the Central American country.
“If we want to be like the developed countries…we have to do what they have done and what they are doing — not what they tell us to do,” Mr. Bukele said.