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El Salvador’s legal battle against MS-13

InternationalEl Salvador’s legal battle against MS-13

Photo: MS-13 Virtual Mass Trial

by Kristen Ku

EL SALVADOR, Fri. Feb. 9, 2024

On February 8, El Salvador embarked on a mass sentencing hearing for 492 individuals who are believed to be leaders of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang. This mass trial, held virtually, represented one of the largest and most significant legal actions against organized crime in recent history.

The accused face charges linked to a staggering 37,402 crimes, including over 500 homicides, as well as numerous cases of disappearances, extortion, arms trafficking, and human trafficking, committed over a decade, from 2012 to 2022, as reported by the attorney general’s office.

The decision to hold a collective trial for such a large number of defendants is a direct outcome of the legal reforms pushed through by President Nayib Bukele’s administration, particularly the mass trial law passed in July 2023.

The law, part of Bukele’s broader crackdown on gang violence, seeks to expedite the prosecution of the tens of thousands arrested during the state of emergency declared in March 2022.

This war , which has been largely popular among Salvadorans, has attributed to a significant drop in violent crime and a sense of safety returning to communities once plagued by gang violence.

President Bukele, who celebrated a landslide re-election victory earlier this month, has been lauded for his efforts to dismantle gang influence in El Salvador.

Under his leadership, more than 75,000 alleged gang members have been arrested, contributing to what was once one of the world’s most violent countries now seeing new levels of peace.

However, this success comes at a steep cost, with accusations of human rights violations, including random arrests, inhumane prison conditions, and torture, casting a shadow over the administration’s achievements.

The mass trial has become a focal point for critics and human rights organizations, who argue that it threatens the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

The Human Rights Commission, among others, has raised concerns about the lack of due process and the potential for wrongful convictions in such a large-scale trial.

The reforms that enabled these mass trials have further been criticized for jeopardizing legal defense rights, increasing sentence lengths, and giving the National Civil Police control over criminal investigations.

Despite these criticisms, the attorney general’s office and supporters of the crackdown argue that the mass trial is a necessary step to hold those responsible for years of terror accountable.

They also point to the gang leaders’ attempts to sabotage El Salvador’s democratic system, collect taxes, and administer their own form of justice, as justification for the trial’s scale and the severity of the potential sentences.

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