bank. it is an ultra-orthodox neighborhood as well. this happened around 9:00 at night as the country was celebrating what they call independence day, 74 years of the establishment of the state of israel. anchor: ukraine says russia is still attacking the besieged steel plant in the variable, despite declaring a cease-fire to allow civilians to leave. moscow denies it has broken the agreement. around 200 civilians are still trapped inside the facility. the u.n. has been trying to get them out. in the eastern ukrainian city, at least 25 people have been injured in russian shelling. homes, a school, and infrastructure were damaged. kyiv says it is trying to fend off russian troops pushing toward the city. the world health organization says nearly 15 million people have died from covid-19 in the past two years, way more than originally thought. the new numbers include deaths
linked to the pandemic drain the health care systems. polls have closed across the united kingdom. in northern ireland, they voted for representatives to be dissolved. the u.s. president has named crane john pierre as the next white house press secretary. she is the first black woman and openly lgbt person to hold the role. she will replace jen psaki. there is your headlines. the news continues on al jazeera after "inside story."
hashem: can gang warfare in el salvador ever be defeated? a state of emergency imposed to curb fighting between rival gangs. what is the reason bet in the increase in gang crime, and can the streets remain safe? this is "inside story." ♪ hashem: hello. welcome to the program. i am hashem ahelbarra. he calls himself the cruelest dictator in the world, the president of el salvador, who has also been responding to criticism of a crackdown on violent gangs. critics say the government's get
tough approach being used to intimidate them, as well as to limit civil liberties of el salvador and. more than 22,000 arrests have been made since they declared a state of emergency in march. international rights groups say police routinely in fridge -- infringe on basic rights. bukele has an 85% approval rate. we will hear from our guests in a moment. first, this report. correspondent: this is what the government wants to transmit, another suspected gang member off the streets, his tattoos giving away his affiliation to incremental band -- to a criminal band. they have arrested 20,000 people in the last month and a half as basic to clean the ms-13 and barrio 18 gangs out of neighborhoods they have ruled for decades.
but this also is an image of the crackdown. one of many women saying goodbye to a husband or a son as they disappear into the salvadorean prison system. here are others. i love you, son, she is saying. in march, after a murder spike, the country declaring a state of emergency. that means people can be arrested without a warrant. the salvadorean congress has extended the emergency to late may. police continue to round up young men en masse. human rights groups say the innocent have been taken. this woman's son sells facemasks to hospitals to help her get by. now she uses a quarter of what she makes in a month to try to free him. >> i don't know why the president is doing this to innocent people. people that are not guilty. fine, someone has done
something, they should pay, but the not guilty? correspondent: at least she knows where he is. other women are going from prison to prison, trying to find their relatives. look at the crowd here. the crackdown goes on. in an ms-13 stronghold, soldiers question everyone going in and out. but an overwhelming number of salvadoreans approve of president nayib bukele's actions. >> we have stopped paying extortion. we are not paying anything now. the gang members have practiced -- have practically disappeared. people are no longer afraid to come to the city center and walk the streets. correspondent: so many have suffered extortion, rape, killing, that even if some and a sense have to suffer, others believe that is a price worth paying. the question is if at the end of all the arrests, confusion, and brutality, this will actually work. john homan, al jazeera. hashem: two main rival gangs
operate in el salvador. the mara salvatrucha is more commonly known as the ms-13. it originated in the 1970's in los angeles and is estimated to have 50,000 plus members, both male and female, in various countries. their enemy is the 18th street gang. it also has its roots in los angeles. both gangs are estimated to make millions of dollars a year through illegal drug trafficking, robbery, and kidnapping, to name a few in a long list of criminal activity. let's bring in our guests. in washington dc, carolina jimenez is president of washington office for latin america. in manchester, colin harding's
latin america analyst and director of latinform. also in washington dc, hector silva avalos is a salvadoran journalist and fellow at the american university center for latin american and latino studies. how should we characterize the we can murders in el salvador? are they act of defiance by gangs? a way to tell the president that his zero-tolerance approach is not working? carolina: there are theories around why that weekend was so tragic and we saw this incredible spike in the number of crimes committed. but what i think is clear and what that weekend reflects is that criminal activity is still a very present reality in el
salvador, perhaps because the route causes of the violence has not been addressed. we call it in spanish a hard-line. it is to address security problems. the response is often short-term and causes that generate a situation of violence that is spread over a country are not truly tackled. i think what we saw on that very tragic weekend was a situation that has not been solved, despite the policies being applied now, or perhaps because of the policies being applied right now, and they need to have a solid response about why there is a conference of approach to violence.
the measures are not going to the problem. hashem: colin, you have president nayib bukele who has been saying for quite some time it is because of his policy, his approach, his toughness when it comes to dealing with gangs and gang crime, that there has been this decline. but suddenly, you have this string of crimes taking place over the weekend. do you see the way the government has failed to address the root causes of the problem? colin: i think that is certainly arguable. there is one theory, which is a political website that has come up with it. bukele reached a deal with the gangs to lower the levels of violence in return for privileges, and that this has broken down and has counted for the sudden spike in murders. bukele has denied this.
there is no public evidence of it, but it does sound plausible because the murder rate in el salvador has gone down dramatically since it was the most violent country in the world in 2015, and it is down to a much lower figure last year. but i think it is correct, w tht the root causes have not been gotten into. having spent lavishly, which i think makes bukele popular with salvadorans, he has avoided making any sort of structural changes. if this deal he supposedly made has broken down for whatever reason, this may be the gangs' way of protesting against his attitude. hashem: we talk about the root causes, we talk about what is happening, what the government is doing, who are these gangs.
but in the meantime, hector, when you have 62 people killed on saturday, the most violent day in 20 years in el salvador, could this be a message particularly from the most aggressive of all these gangs, the ms-13, saying we are now gaining the upper hand as far as el salvador is concerned? hector: yes, i think they have had the upper hand for quite a while until now. i would say that, in fact, my thinking is that the whole bukele presidency is based on a pact of some sort with the two big gangs, because these gangs have held territorial control over great portions of the country's neighborhoods, the countryside, the big cities, for 25 years now. and there hasn't been any
government that has been able to address that. these gangs have embedded in the social fabric of el salvador. and away that bukele and other politicians have managed to deal with that territorial control is by making truces with them. this pact, i think there is enough evidence now that there is an ongoing pact with the gangs, and that is a somewhat fragile pact. last weekend, there gangs were making a statement. something happened. we don't know what happened yet, but it had a ripple effect. effectively, those were they gangs saying, yes, we are here, we hold control of these
territories, and if you don't comply, this is what is going to happen. they are capable of doing this anytime. hashem: carolina, the president takes credit for what he describes as an unprecedented decline in street crime in el salvador. we all know this is something that started in 2015, four years before he comes into power. should he take the full credit for this, or this was the result of a political process that started way before nayib bukele? carolina: i think he takes credit one week, then he shows the week after that he has to do something because what he took credit for is no longer happening. i think hector made a very good point. gang violence in el salvador is not a new phenomena. unfortunately, thousands of salvadorans have been victims of gang violence, and they do
control the territory. the decreasing violence is just part of a cycle and comes with an increase in violence. i think he can take credit for a day without homicide, and he would tweet about it, zero homicide today. but then he has to take it back because homicides are increasing again. i don't think the administration has been successful at reducing violence. hashem: colin, for quite some time we had top salvadoran officials coming out and saying they had been doing all it takes to clean up the streets, until an investigated media outlet said, wait a second, maybe there is some dodgy politics here. the government is now being
accused of striking a deal with ms-13 and ms-18. what it implies, the government has told these people to stop -- has told these groups to stop killing people, in the meantime do whatever they want to do, in order to give credit to the president. colin: there is some documentary evidence being uncovered that some kind of deal of that sort was reached. as i said earlier, one theory is this sudden spike in violence is because this deal has broken down for whatever reason and this is them making a statement that we can turn on the taps of violence whenever they choose. it is worth noting also that the sudden crackdown that bukele has gone in for his an aversion to previous policies.
a policy was called super heavy hand that they flooded the streets, rounded people up in much the same way that bukele has done. the effects were negligible in terms of a long-term change. hashem: hector, is this so they could possibly tarnish the reputation of nayib bukele, the fact that right after those revelations we saw the administration putting in restrictions and imposing sanctions on top officials affiliated with the president? hector: yes, and i think this is a developing story. this whole gang issue has put the bukele administration at odds with washington. washington has been the traditional ally of el salvador for a lot of time now, and one of the reasons it has become bitter is because the
investigation put out was an investigation by a joint task force of salvadoran officials and u.s. officials. so, the u.s. is pretty aware of this. the u.s. has asked for the extradition of ms-13 leaders, and the bukele administration -- well, his attorney general, who was named by bukele, has denied that, and the supreme court has denied that. this is, as i said, a developing story. hashem: we have here at the very center of this debate two of the most brutal, notorious gangs in central america. the mara salvatrucha, or the ms-13, and el barrio 18, or the ms-18. why are they so powerful in a
place, a small country like el salvador? carolina: i think el salvador is a country that has not truly dealt with its legacy of war. it was a very tragic civil war, and the necessary process has never been truly supported by the government that came to power after the war ended. to that, you also have a country that has very troubling socioeconomic indicators. to not have proper access to education, to basic services. countries like that, where you combine that with having a rich
diaspora, in the united states and people being deported in large numbers, and you have a combination for this type of criminal group to be born. we know that deportation contributes to the matters in el salvador, but also to flourish. and combating and creating that violence, it is a recipe for disaster. in the long run, it will make these gangs more violent. hashem: i see your point. colin, when you have gangs which wish to set up parallel rivalries in el salvador, you have others saying this is just
an excuse by the government to clamp down, just an excuse by a government trying to further clamp down on political freedoms and freedom of expression, just for the president to further consolidate his grip on power. colin: it is certainly part of bukele's style. he does see himself as a provincial figure. he is part of the populist phenomenon, which we have seen in many different parts of the world. when he was elected in 2019, he swept away the two traditional parties, which had oscillated in power throughout the years. he has cultivated his personal image with the reverse baseball cap, the constant social media posts, the traveling around and addressing crowds, and so on.
he was a former advertising man and knows all about such things. and yes, there are indications that he finds democratic control a bit irksome and get in the way. and that is why he has replaced judges with people that voted for himself. hashem: hector, when you look at the sequence of events in el salvador, a state of emergency followed by major revisions of the penal code, which implies sentences of up to 45 years in for gang membership, and also you have the new law which regulates the way social media operates, particularly when it comes to reporting on the crackdown on the gangs, people see it differently, see it as an attempt by the government to
just build a dictatorship in el salvador. hector: yes, i am pretty sure this so-called crackdown on the gangs is a crackdown on democracy. but this has been the plan of nayib bukele since day one. i truly believe he had a plan, and that was to consolidate power, mount power over his overwhelming popularity. part of the plan was to take control of congress, which he did by popular vote, then take control of the other institutions. then what this crackdown has helped him do is precisely that, is to finish the path in which he envisions himself to be reelected in 2024. in order to do that, he needs that overwhelming popularity to stay as it is. as long as he is loved by the salvadoran people, he will stay
in power. in order to do that, he needs to get rid of comfortable voices, those of critical journalists or those of the opposition. if you look at the reforms, especially to the penal code, their aim is to silence those voices. hashem: carolina, we are running short on time here. when you look at the pattern of the gang violence, we are seeing the same pattern in guatemala, honduras, gangs fighting over territory. we see the bu barrio 18 splintering. it has the potential to create more violence and instability. is this something that a government like el salvador, a tiny government of 7 million, can handle? or is it something that needs pan american policy? carolina: i think in general, eradicating violence, especially when it comes to this kind of crime, which as you clearly
point out is not necessarily a problem of one country but has spread to three or more countries, it requires competence of strategies. i think we may need those strategies. but there are definitely things that a country like el salvador can do. you need a comprehensive approach for this type of gang violence that includes justice reform, independent investigations, community-based interventions. and those things can be discussed and debated if the president would listen to experts, to human rights organizations, and to citizens. but i don't think the president is listening. i think the president is tweeting, and as my colleagues have been saying, amassing more power for other reasons beyond controlling and ensuring that salvadorans can have a life free of fear and violence. hashem:: colin, what should be
the first priority in places like el salvador and central america in particular? the need to tackle instability, violence, and drug trafficking, or gangs? as long as those are there, they gangs will continue to thrive. colin: yes, they are all intimately interconnected. the gangs will turn their hand to anything that raises money for them and extends their control over the local communities. whether it is arms smuggling, drug smuggling, extortion. extortion of the bus companies, for instance, is prevalent throughout central america. there is no way of separating the two. it is a point i would like to point out, whether bukele is going to listen to advice or suggestions. he is not particularly keen on
that. he has actually defied the international monetary fund, making bitcoin legal tender. it is the first cryptocurrency country in the world, as part of initiative of creating a new -- as part of his initiative of creating a new economy. hashem: this is a story we will definitely revisit in the near future. in the meantime, carolina jimenez, colin harding, and hector silva avalos, i appreciate your insight. thank you. and thank you for watching. you can see the program any time by visiting our website, al jazeera.com. go to our facebook page. facebook.com/ajinsidestory. you can join the conversation on twitter. our handle is @ajinsidestory. for the entire team here in doha, bye for now.