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American citizens arrested in El Salvador as part of nationwide crime crackdown

El Salvador has swept up a number of foreign nationals in a widespread crackdown on criminal activity, allegedly including Americans in those arrests.

“The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” a State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “We are aware of U.S. citizens detained in El Salvador under El Salvador’s declared state of exception.”

“We take our role in assisting U.S. citizens abroad seriously and are engaged with the government of El Salvador directly on this issue,” the spokesperson said, adding that “due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time.”

The U.S. first raised the alarm about American citizens mistakenly swept up in the crackdown through a March 2023 travel advisory update. The State Department said some of the arrests had occurred in a “reportedly arbitrary manner” and urged Americans to reconsider travel to the country.

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Gang mega-prison complex

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele takes part in a tour during a national television transmission to present the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador, in a handout distributed to Reuters on Feb. 1, 2023. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Handout via Reuters)

“Though there has been a significant reduction in gang-related activity, violent crime remains a concern throughout significant portions of the country,” the advisory noted.

Neither the White House nor the government of El Salvador responded to a request for comment by time of publication.

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared a “state of exception” in March 2022 as he empowered his government to crack down on gang members by loosening the country’s arrest laws, such as no longer requiring a warrant for an arrest and granting the government access to citizens’ communications.

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Nayib Bukele

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, waves during his inauguration ceremony at Gerardo Barrios Square outside the National Palace in downtown San Salvador on June 1, 2019. (Oscar Rivera/AFP via Getty Images)

He pushed through the new measure after three days of violence left 87 people dead. Bukele blamed MS-13 for the violence, and authorities said they had captured the MS-13 leaders who had ordered the killings during the statewide sweep.

El Salvador’s congress extended the state of exception several times, resulting in more than 46,000 arrests of alleged gang members. That number surged to more than 62,000 by the end of the year, including alleged collaborators.

El Salvador legislator

File: In this picture taken on February 09, 2020, soldiers guard the Legislative Assembly, in San Salvador, as supporters of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele gather outside it to make pressure on deputies to approve a loan to invest in security. – El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele gave on Sunday a one-week ultimatum to parliament to approve a loan to equip the country’s security forces and fight against criminal gangs. Soldiers entered and stood guard inside parliament for the first time since the beginning of the 1990’s, during the country’s civil war. ((Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images) (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

El Salvador has also allegedly arrested nationals from Panama, Guatemala and Colombia, according to public radio program “The World.” The government of El Salvador has not published any stats on how many foreign nationals that authorities in the country have arrested.

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mega-prison gang violence

Prison agents watch gang members as they are processed upon their arrival at the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador, in this handout distributed to Reuters on Feb. 24, 2023. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Handout via Reuters)

U.S. citizen and Los Angeles native Walter Huetes was detained in El Salvador in May when he attended a party with some friends, according to “The World.”

Huetes has Salvadoran roots and was in the country to help his stepdaughter with a visa application when he was arrested due to tattoos on his wrist and hand. He allegedly has not been able to call his family, but he has spoken to a U.S. consular officer.

 

The State Department did not say how many Americans may have been arrested as part of the crackdown.

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