El Salvador Vp Acknowledges Mistakes In War On Gangs But Says Country Is 'nOt A Police State'

El Salvador Vice President Félix Ulloa, who is running for re-election as the running mate of President Nayib Bukele, hands election material to the reporter interviewing him at his office in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. El Salvador will hold its presidential election on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
El Salvador Vice President Félix Ulloa, who is running for re-election as the running mate of President Nayib Bukele, hands election material to the reporter interviewing him at his office in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. El Salvador will hold its presidential election on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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SAN SALVADOR (AP) — El Salvador’s government "made mistakes” in its war against the country’s gangs, but has never undermined the country’s democracy to consolidate power, according to the man likely to be reelected vice president.

Félix Ulloa, temporarily on leave as El Salvador’s vice president while he runs for reelection alongside Nayib Bukele, defended his government’s controversial crackdown in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, days before a presidential election they are expected to win easily. Such policies, he said, will continue until El Salvador’s gangs are defeated.

Ulloa acknowledged that in their administration's mass detention of citizens the government imprisoned thousands of people who had not committed any crime, something he said they are correcting, but justified the harsh actions as being widely popular and completely “legal.”

Since declaring a state of emergency in March 2022 following a surge in gang violence, the government has detained 76,000 people — more than 1% of the population in the small Central American nation. The declaration, which suspended some fundamental rights like access to a lawyer and being told why you're being arrested, has been renewed by congress every month since.

“There is no perfect work by humans ... Look at the big picture,” Ulloa said. “Understand what this country is doing when we have defended people and the human rights of millions of Salvadorans whose rights were being violated by criminal structures."

Around 7,000 people arrested under the state of emergency have since been released from prisons where authorities have been accused of torture, as well committing systematic and mass human rights abuses.

Ulloa said that in some cases officials may have asked security forces to meet quotas of detentions — arresting a predetermined number of people — but that it was “not an order from executives, nor a government policy.”

Human rights groups say more than 150 people have died in custody since the beginning of the crackdown.

Reporting by the Associated Press has documented that detainees pass through mass hearings of as many as 300 defendants at a time. They rarely have access to lawyers. The vast majority of those arrested under the emergency declaration remain in prison without having been tried.

“There is no police state,” Ulloa said. “Not a single right has been suspended in El Salvador. No public liberty has ever been suspended because of the state of emergency,” he said before noting a couple rights that had been suspended but clarifying that they didn't affect the “honorable” Salvadorans.

Ulloa said the state of emergency would continue to be extended until the government decides it is no longer needed.

“When we declare the country free of gangs, of criminals, of criminal structures, there will be no reason to have a state of emergency,” he said.

Following the crackdown, rates of violence have fallen sharply, with homicide rates dipping to some of the lowest in the Americas, and the government continues to enjoy sky-high rates of approval.

Ulloa firmly denied accusations by the United States government that their administration had negotiated with gangs before the surge in violence and the state of emergency that followed.

He also denied that their administration carried out any attacks on the press, despite journalists, activists, union leaders and opposition politicians saying they were routinely harassed, spied on and even detained by the government. He accused critics of their administration of working with the country’s opposition parties, and people claiming their rights have been violated under the crackdown of being “connected with the gangs.”

Ulloa rejected accusations by constitutional scholars, experts and political opposition that the government has undermined the country’s democracy by concentrating power in the executive branch.

One such move took place in 2021 when the newly-elected congress — where Bukele's allies have a majority — replaced the justices of the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber with sympathetic judges. The government also pushed through electoral reforms that watchdogs say favored his own party, particularly in congressional and local elections.

Ulloa has maintained that seeking re-election is completely legal, adding that he and Bukele have taken leave before seeking a second term.

“There is nothing that we have done that does not have a legal foundation,” Ulloa said.

Lawyers and analysts argue that at least six articles of the constitution prohibit presidential reelection in El Salvador. But a 2021 resolution by the same court purged by Bukele's allies enabled the leader to run and ordered the electoral authorities to comply with the resolution.

Ulloa would not directly answer a question by the AP about whether he and Bukele would seek a third term. He echoed Bukele in saying the current constitution prohibits it, but left open the possibility if the country’s constitution changes. Ulloa proposed more than 200 changes to the constitution in 2021.

“If the constitution is changed, (Bukele) wants to do it and the constitution enables that, I suppose he would be able to do so,” Ulloa said, adding that the current constitution allows for first and second term. “A third (term) is not allowed under the current constitution. I’m not saying it is not possible if it changes.”

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Associated Press video journalist Fernanda Pesce contributed to this report.

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