A spike in gang violence in El Salvador amid the coronavirus pandemic spurred the country's president on Sunday to authorize the use by "lethal force," as prison officials packed rival gang members together in cells in an attempt to halt the violence. Authorities said most of the gang-related killings are ordered from prisons.
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele said he was forced to take action after the Central American country reported 24 homicides on Friday, followed by another 29 killings by Sunday. Bukele said criminal gangs were taking advantage of security forces helping to contain COVID-19 in the country.
“The police and armed forces must prioritize safeguarding their lives, those of their companions and of honest citizens," Bukele said. "The use of lethal force is authorized in self-defense or in defense of the lives of Salvadorans."
In addition to the decree on Sunday, the government also ordered members of rival gangs into shared cells in a bid to break up lines of communication between members of the same group, according to Reuters.
Searches were carried out in at least five prisons after Bukele ordered a 24-hour prison lockdown and declared a maximum emergency in the facilities. Authorities said killings throughout the country in recent days were ordered from prisons.
Images released by the president's press office show police officers wearing masks as a precaution against COVID-19.
Inmates were also pictured seated on the floor close very together in large groups wearing masks as their rooms were searched by officers.
Some 12,862 gang members are behind bars in El Salvador, according to prison authorities. Nationwide, gangs in El Salvador are made up of more than 65,000 youth and adults, with most members of Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13.
Osiris Luna, El Salvador's deputy security minister, said prisoners "will not receive sunlight" and will be in total confinement for 24 hours a day in the seven maximum security prisons in the country, Sky News reported.
"We have taken the decision to mix and imprison in each of the cells the different groups of the criminal gangs that are causing so much damage to the country," Luna said. "The government will not bow down to any terrorist structure. This state is going to enforce the law and make it respected."
Before the recent escalation of violence, the country reported a drop in killings with an average of 2.3 violent deaths per day. In 2019, El Salvador saw 2,398 homicides, with an annual average of 6.6 deaths per day.
As the coronavirus pandemic has worsened around the world, concern has shifted to crowded prisons, where inmates not only live in close proximity to one another, but share laundries, baths and eating areas.
Officials in California, for instance, have responded by releasing thousands of non-violent inmates to open up space in facilities to prevent the spread of the virus.
As of Monday, there were 323 cases of COVID-19 in El Salvador with at least eight deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.