El Salvador asks congress to help it fight gangs


By Marcos Aleman, AP

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador–The government of El Salvador on Thursday asked lawmakers to give it a freer hand to impose control over the country’s prisons and the gang leaders they hold.

The administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren presented the legislature with a package of measures that included making it easier to transfer prisoners from one lockup to another and to institute special security measures for prisoners.

They would be an extension of steps the government took this week when it transferred 299 imprisoned gang members from seven prisons to one where they will be held in isolation. The transfers came under a 15-day state of emergency in the prisons that also suspended family visits to those inmates.

El Salvador is stepping up its fight against street gangs in the face of the world’s highest murder rate, which reached 103 homicides for every 100,000 residents last year. The government blames the gangs, which have expanded their territory.

Last weekend, masked men appeared in a widely circulated video saying they represented the country’s three major gangs and were unilaterally telling their rank and file to stop killing. The daily total of bodies dropped around the country has fallen this week, but the government has said it will not negotiate.

Under the new proposals, government would be able to suspend all visits with prisoners except from lawyers. Ramirez said even lawyer visits would occur under greater control.

The proposals, which would be in place for at least one year, also include measures to compel cellular phone companies to block their signals around prisons. Presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas accused the phone companies of refusing to weaken their signals around prisons and instead of strengthening the signals when the government tries to block them.

Sanchez Ceren had also announced late Wednesday that he was calling up 1,000 army reservists to join the fight against the gangs.

“We maintain our position: with these cruel criminals it is not possible to have an attitude of tolerance,” he said. “We will not let up on the criminals. We are not going to retreat.”