Relatives of jailed Salvadorans say ‘mass trials’ unconstitutional

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – Dozens of relatives of prisoners jailed in El Salvador during a state of emergency called on Thursday on the Supreme Court to rule unconstitutional upcoming “mass trials” of suspected gang members.

El Salvador’s Congress, controlled by President Nayib Bukele’s ruling party, approved special emergency provisions in July that allow people with established links to various gang structures to be tried in a group.

This means that the Attorney General’s office can use the same evidence to try people linked by factors such as the area where crimes were committed within a two-year period.

But some critics fear that innocent people captured during a crackdown on El Salvador’s gangs – or maras – launched in March last year could be convicted along with guilty gang members.

“This law is perverse and arbitrary, what it wants is to condemn many innocent people,” Samuel Ramirez of the Movement of Victims of the Regime (MOVIR), which is helping the relatives of suspects, told journalists.

“If a person lived in a community controlled by a gang and that gang committed a crime, he will be blamed for that crime.”

In July, Justice Minister Gustavo Villatoro said up to 900 defendants from the same criminal cell could be tried together. Provisions came into force in August but a date for the trials has yet to be set.

The Ministry of Justice and courts did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Bukele, who is standing for re-election in February even though the constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms, is pushing on with the popular anti-gang crackdown that has brought more than 73,000 arrested.

An important element of the campaign is a “mega-prison”, 45 miles (73 km) southeast of the capital, that holds about 12,000 suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival Barrio 18 gangs.

Authorities say it is the largest prison in the Americas and can hold about 40,000 prisoners.

(Reporting by Wilfredo Pineda and Nelson Renteria; writing by Sarah Morland; editing by Robert Birsel)