The government of El Salvador says it has arrested more than 600 gang suspects and ordered reductions in food for inmates after a wave of killings over the weekend.
Officials declared a state of emergency and locked down prisons after 87 murders were committed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Authorities have blamed the killings on gang members, and on Monday authorities said soldiers and police had raided gang strongholds around San Salvador.
President Nayib Bukele wrote that those detained will not be released, and ordered that food for gang inmates at Salvadoran prisons would be reduced to two meals per day, apparently to stretch current supplies to feed the new detainees as well.
“Don’t think they are going to be set free,” he tweeted. “We are going to ration the same food we are giving now (to inmates).
“And if the international community is worried about their little angels, they should come and bring them food, because I am not going to take budget money away from the schools to feed these terrorists.”
El Salvador’s congress granted Mr Bukele’s request to declare a state of emergency early on Sunday amid the wave of gang-related killings. By comparison, there were 79 homicides in the whole of February.
The state of emergency suspends constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and loosen arrest rules for as much as 30 days, and could be extended. The decree allows suspects to be detained without a lawyer for up to 15 days, and allows police to search mobile phones and messages.
The homicides appeared linked to the country’s notorious street gangs, who effectively control many neighbourhoods in the capital. The National Police reported they have captured five leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, who they claimed ordered the weekend killings.
Mr Bukele previously ordered the head of the country’s prisons to carry out an immediate 24/7 lockdown of gang inmates in their cells.
He wrote: “A message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your homeboys will not see even one ray of sunlight.”
While the president has tried to project a tough attitude on crime, the country’s enormously powerful street gangs have proved a double-edged sword for him.
“We must remind the people of El Salvador that what is happening now is due to the negligence of those who protected criminals,” the conservative Arena party said in a statement.
That was an apparent reference to a December report by the US Treasury Department that said Mr Bukele’s government secretly negotiated a truce with leaders of the gangs. That contradicted his denials and raised tensions between the two nations.
The US government alleges Mr Bukele’s government bought the gangs’ support with financial benefits and privileges for their imprisoned leaders including prostitutes and mobile phones. He has vehemently denied the accusations.
The explosive accusations cut to the heart of one of his most highly touted successes in office: a plunge in the country’s homicide rate.
The revelations raised tensions between Mr Bukele and the Biden administration. After the new congress removed the attorney general and the justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court in May, the US government expressed concern over the direction of the country.
The US Agency for International Development announced it would shift aid from government agencies in El Salvador to non-governmental organisations.
El Salvador’s new attorney general in June announced the government was cancelling the Organisation of American States’ anti-corruption mission in the Central American country.
Mr Bukele enjoys extremely high popularity. He stepped into a political vacuum left by discredited traditional parties from the left and right.