SANSALVADOR (Reuters) – El Salvador President Nayib Bukele ruled out negotiations with criminal gangs on Tuesday and vowed to go after their finances in a bid to reduce violence in the Central American country.
Bukele, 37, took office this month pledging to bring down a sky-high murder rate and reduce poverty, corruption and mass migration to the United States.
“We are not open to having a dialogue with criminal groups,” said the political maverick who ended three decades of two-party rule with his election victory in February.
“We have not received communications from the gangs and we don’t expect any either,” Bukele said at a swearing-in ceremony for his deputy justice minister.
El Salvador is one of a trio of countries in Central America, along with Guatemala and Honduras, that has seen thousands of desperate migrants flee raging gangland violence and bleak economic prospects over the past couple years.
Last week, the director of the police force vowed to do more to fight organised crime and said it was raiding dangerous areas to recover territory from the gangs, capture their leaders and confiscate arms, illicit cash and drugs.
“We want the gangs to go without their cash revenue so that it will be very difficult for them to sustain their organizations,” said Bukele, without giving details.
The government blames the gangs for the violence, even as rights groups have accused the police of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other rights violations in confrontations with gang members.
El Salvador remains one of the world’s most violent countries although the police reported that the number of murders in the first half of the year fell by about 12% to just over 1,400.
Last year, the country registered a murder rate of more than 50 homicides per 100,000 residents, one of the highest such rates anywhere in the world, according to United Nations data.
El Salvador’s “maras” gangs – international criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and extortion that have some 70,000 members – have often been accused of being behind the killings.
Previous governments have tried to negotiate a lasting truce but with little or no success.
El Salvador’s largest gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), has in the past floated the possibility of curbing the violence through dialogue, and representatives of the gang have even offered Bukele some public support.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by David Alire Garcia; editing by Darren Schuettler)