El Salvador hosts Miss Universe as protesters denounce mass arrests

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – At least 300 people protested in El Salvador on Saturday against an anti-gang crackdown that allegedly put innocent people behind bars, hours before the Central American country hosts the Miss Universe pageant for the first time since 1975.

Some constitutional guarantees have been suspended since March 2022 under a controversial state of emergency advocated by President Nayib Bukele. This move allowed state security forces to arrest more than 70,000 suspected gang members.

The approach has been popular with Salvadorans and has helped reduce crime and murder rates, attracting international events such as Miss Universe, which El Salvador has reportedly invested $60 million to host.

However, human rights groups have alleged that the crackdown has led to arbitrary arrests, torture and the deaths of detainees.

Protesters in the capital San Salvador marched Saturday from the city’s Constitutional Monument to a hotel where dozens of Miss Universe delegates are staying.

“We want Miss Universe to see that Salvadorans are suffering,” said 67-year-old Guadalupe Avila, whose 27-year-old son Carlos was arrested 19 months ago.

“This country is not what they were told it was,” Avila said, holding a sign with photos of her son, an artist, and documents showing a clean criminal record.

Some protesters wore sashes that read “Miss Political Prisoners,” “Miss Persecution” and “Miss Mass Trials,” alluding to group trials announced for thousands of people arrested in the crackdown.

Dozens of police and soldiers guarded the building and patrolled in armored vehicles as protesters demonstrated outside.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

Brian Ashcraft

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