For nearly two months, the young 40-year-old Salvadoran president has been leading an unprecedented offensive against the “maras”, who, through murder, racketeering and violence, are spreading terror in this small Central American country of 6.5 million. of inhabitants.

The government’s initiative against gangs, whose members recognize each other by their tattoos, began after a spike in killings that left 87 dead in two days in late March, killings for which authorities have blamed these criminal groups .

In more than fifty days, more than 31,000 people, presumed members of these gangs, have been arrested by the police and imprisoned. These operations were facilitated by an exceptional regime voted in early April by Parliament, which notably authorizes arrests and imprisonment without a court order.

On May 3, Pedro Segovia, a 55-year-old bricklayer, was arrested by the police in his town of San Miguel, 139 km east of the capital, on suspicion of being a member of one of these gangs. Transferred to San Salvador, he was imprisoned in “La Esperanza” prison.

Ofelia Hernandez, 25, believes in her husband’s innocence and traveled to the capital with her two children. Like her, many relatives of imprisoned people gather daily in front of the prison. Many even sleep on the spot in an improvised camp.

“We come to check if they are going to release him or what will happen because I need him at home (…) he is the only one who can help me” economically, explains the young woman to the AFP who only has an informal job.

To prove the reality of the arrests, the head of state, who enjoys a high popularity rating, regularly publishes on Twitter images of those arrested, most with tattoos that sign their membership of the “maras”.

Ernestina, 67, has eyes that fill with tears when she talks about her son arrested by the police at the end of April. For fear of reprisals, she does not want to give her name or that of her son.

“They came to get him from the house without any explanation. I begged the police not to hurt him, but they took him anyway,” she told AFP. “I have hope and faith that they release him, he is not part of these” criminal groups.

Since the start of this “war”, human rights organizations have denounced the indiscriminate arrest of very many young people, including minors, unrelated to gangs, which has around 70,000 members throughout the country.

Amnesty International denounced “legal reforms that violate international standards, mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of detainees”, while Washington called on President Bukele to respect human rights.

“I recognize the challenges that El Salvador faces in dealing with gangs. This is with good intentions, but it must be done in a way that respects human rights,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Wednesday. man, Michelle Bachelet.

“For me the president has committed an injustice (…) by sending young people to prison who have nothing to do with these guys” gangs, believes Elizabeth Hernandez, 54, who hopes that her son will be quickly released .

Among the soldiers guarding the prison, one of them tells AFP that he was almost killed in 2021 by members of a “mara”, but that he was able to escape by shooting one malefactors.

“Those who are gang members should rot in jail,” he says, pointing to the scar from a cut on his throat he blames on his attackers.