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Salvadorans are concerned over President Bukele's new power from state of emergency

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

In El Salvador, a state of emergency has been declared following a weekend of intense violence. More than 70 people there were killed in just two days. It's prompted the president to crack down on gangs and suspend constitutional rights, and that has many in the country worried about possible abuses. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from her base in Mexico City. She covers El Salvador and was just recently in the country. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Kelsey.

SNELL: So 70 murders just over the weekend. What happened?

KAHN: Right. The violence started last Friday. There were 14 registered murders, then on Saturday, another 62. And the killings were indiscriminate. Some of the killings were just people out on the street. These are numbers not seen in decades, some say since the civil war. People were left - you know, bodies were just left out, some of them on a highway leading to a popular beach in clear public view. It was a move, really, to create terror.

SNELL: Before this, it seemed like violence had been relatively under control. Are there any theories about why this broke out now so suddenly?

KAHN: Security experts that I spoke with say the violence is a clear message from the gangs to the government that they are in control. And they say something has happened. There's been a breakdown in a suspected pact between the gangs and the government that had really quelled the violence. I spoke with Jose Miguel Cruz. He's a researcher at Florida International University. And he's an expert in Salvador's gangs. He says the gangs are now actively challenging President Nayib Bukele.

JOSE MIGUEL CRUZ: From what we know in the past, it's very likely that, you know, whatever agreement the government has with the gangs has apparently collapsed. What this means is when the gangs want to increase violence in El Salvador, they do it.

KAHN: President Bukele has long denied that his government is engaged in any sort of pact or negotiations with the gangs. But there is evidence that shows that he has, and the U.S. believes he has and has even sanctioned members of his administration for conceding to the gangs.

SNELL: President Bukele declared a state of emergency with the backing of the Congress. What exactly does that mean?

KAHN: Police can stop people on the streets and search them without cause. They can be held without seeing a judge for up to two weeks. It used to be for only up to only 72 hours. Surveillance, including wiretaps, can be done without a judge's approval, and there's limits on public assembly. And all of this will be enforced for the next 30 days.

SNELL: So how are people viewing these new powers given to the president?

KAHN: Actually, the move is popular with many people. He's very popular. He's tough on crime. That's the image he's created and he projects through state media. And on social media, he's a prolific tweeter in English and in Spanish. But civil rights groups and journalists, both of whom he attacks frequently, are concerned. Bukele's party holds the majority in Congress. He's removed judges and appointed many loyal members to the judiciary. His government has been accused of spying on activists, opponents and journalists with the powerful Pegasus technology. He denies that. Jeannette Aguilar, a security expert I spoke with - she's also a human rights advocate - says Bukele already has so much power.

JEANNETTE AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says he didn't need to take such extreme measures. But she says the gangs directly challenged his all-powerful image, and he struck back hard. She said in the long run, these iron fist practices taken by past administrations don't work and don't get to the root causes of the gangs, which are poverty and the lack of opportunities.

SNELL: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "HHALLMARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.