WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The archbishop of San Salvador said he supported government efforts to combat crime in El Salvador, a day after more than 10,000 heavily armed troops marched into a large, working-class suburb of San Salvador long plagued by gangs.
"We have lived an unbearable violent situation" because of gangs, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas said in a Dec. 4 news conference. "It seems to me that it's not just a right, but an obligation of the government to pursue crime, because it is its duty to watch out for national security."
Slick videos shot via drone showed soldiers with assault rifles and armored trucks descending at dawn Dec. 3 into Soyapango, the second-largest municipality in the country, as the government announced it was entering the next phase of its efforts to eradicate gangs.
Citizens who are not involved in gangs "have nothing to fear," Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said in various social media posts showing the display of military might. He later boasted that the operation in Soyapango had netted more than 140 gang members within 48 hours of its implementation.
But local human rights groups have said innocent civilians have been caught in the effort to capture criminals, and an untold number are among the more than 58,000 who have been arrested since the government instituted a crackdown against gangs in March. Many remain in jail and are without legal representation. Bukele has admitted that some people might be innocent but said that situation is rare.
Soyapango, a working-class city with pockets of deep poverty, has long been a gang stronghold. But its poverty is why some human rights groups see it as more vulnerable, since the poor are less likely to receive legal help.
"We have been advocating so that innocent people are not imprisoned ... it would not be just," the archbishop said, adding that he had heard the government was taking measures to safeguard rights.
One local group, Cristosal, said in November that innocent people have been arrested during the crackdown and some have died while in government custody. Cristosal also reported that more than 3,000 Salvadorans said they have had their rights violated since the crackdown began.
However, the majority of Salvadorans back the president and his actions. A public opinion poll by the Jesuit-run José Simeón Cañas Central American University released in October said 75.9% of the Salvadoran population approved of the measures taken.
Some saw the deployment as a smokescreen; it occurred as the government was evicting poor families from a coastal section of the country where it wants to build "the Cancún of El Salvador," a Bitcoin haven.
But others saw something more ominous. Some residents of Soyapango told local media that hearing the soldiers' footsteps into their city reminded them of the country's civil war, which spanned from 1980 until 1992. They worry about increased militarization given El Salvador's past of large-scale killings of civilians during the war.
Soyapango was one of several cities that saw violence up-close during the war, when left-wing guerrillas and the National Guard were involved in a major confrontation in the city in 1989.
"It's as if we're in the past, when the war started," a Soyapango resident told the newspaper El Diario de Hoy.
However, the archbishop said he had heard positive comments.
"What we have seen is that people are happy because they feel more secure, and it has to be said that, in that environment, people have suffered because they have not been able to go outside into their communities, young people cannot go outside to play, ever. It is an ugly thing," the archbishop said.
One of the government videos of soldiers entering the city shows an elderly woman calmly sweeping the sidewalk as soldiers pass.
Bukele, who in 2020 entered the country's legislative chambers with armed soldiers seeking lawmakers' support of a $109 million crime package, boasted on Twitter Dec. 5 that the deployment was an "unprecedented logistical achievement."
"By the way, never in the history of our country had it been possible to concentrate such a number of troops. The mobilization of an entire division of the army was only in manuals, but it had never been done in El Salvador," he said.