El Salvador’s Congress passed a reform of the Law Against Organized Crime on July 26 that increases penalties for people named as leaders of criminal groups and also allows mass trials. It also allows for provisional detention for up to 24 months without trial. The measure was approved with 67 votes out of a possible 84 in the Legislative Assembly.
The reform, proposed by President Nayib Bukele, comes in the context of the state of emergency approved in March last year in the Central American country following a wave of violence that Bukele’s government said was caused by a dispute between rival gangs. Bukele has requested the extension of the state of the emergency 16 times. Over 70,000 people have been detained during the period of emergency rule, accused of belonging to or collaborating with criminal groups.
Under the new rules, the government is allowed to “submit accused persons to a single criminal proceeding for belonging to the same terrorist structure or criminal group.” Mass trials can have up to 900 people in the dock simultaneously. In addition, gang leaders had their maximum sentence increased from 45 to 60 years in jail.
Human rights organization Cristosal criticized the move and said the reforms in the new law hit hardest those who “live in poor areas and have informal work.”
Cristosal stated on July 27, “The reforms could lead to greater impunity, given that collective trials would favor punishing gang membership over crimes such as homicide or extortion.”