By Marcos Aleman
SANTA TECLA, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador’s government took its efforts against the country’s powerful street gangs to another level by sending inmates into cemeteries to destroy the tombs of gang members at a time of year when families typically visit their loved ones’ graves.
Armed with sledgehammers and pry bars, inmates broke up tombs marked with “MS,” of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, in a San Salvador suburb Tuesday.
Santa Tecla Mayor Henry Flores said the crews had destroyed nearly 80 tombstones in the municipal cemetery and erased gang-related graffiti. “Our plan is that there is no graffiti so the people feel safe,” Flores said.
El Salvador has been under a state of exception since late March. President Nayib Bukele requested and received the special powers, which suspend some constitutional rights, after gangs killed 62 people across the country in one day.
Since then, authorities have arrested more than 56,000 people for alleged gang ties. Nongovernmental organizations have tallied several thousand human rights violations and at least 80 in-custody deaths of people arrested during the state of exception.
Authorities had already painted over or removed gang graffiti that used to be visible in neighborhoods throughout El Salvador, but destroying gang members’ tombs was a new step. It came as some Salvadorans visited cemeteries for the Day of the Dead.
Santa Tecla sits beside the capital San Salvador and has long been a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha gang.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gatherings in cemeteries had been restricted until this year. This week, more people came to visit gravesites while police and soldiers patrolled cemeteries.
“There’s a lot of happiness being able to visit relatives who have died,” said Juan Escamilla, who brought flowers to a relative’s grave Wednesday. “Before it was normal to see gang members inside the cemetery, but today there’s no danger.”
Osiris Luna, the head of El Salvador’s prisons, said via Twitter that prisoners and police had destroyed tombstones of various gangs in cemeteries in Santa Tecla and Colón, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of the capital.
Luna, who referred to gang members as “terrorists,” said they didn’t deserve “any recognition, that’s why we destroyed every trace of these groups. In this country, the gangs no longer have a place.”
Later, the National Police said on social platforms that residents of Candelaria de la Frontera in Santa Ana department in western El Salvador reported that a grave in that town had a tombstone that referenced the MS-13 gang, so police immediately went there and destroyed it.