Report on Salvadoran gang crackdown details killings, other abuses

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador's extended crackdown on the country's gangs has led to abuses, including at least 86 detainees deaths while in custody, many showing signs of torture, suggesting "state responsibility," according to an independent report released on Wednesday.

The report by Human Rights Watch and Salvadoran justice non-profit Cristosal marks the latest critique of President Nayib Bukele's militarized offensive against gangs like Bario 18 and MS-13, after over 90 mostly civilians were gunned down in a single March weekend. Bukele then declared a temporary state of emergency, suspending some constitutional rights, while launching an unprecedented roundup of alleged gang members.

To date, more than 58,000 people have been arrested - including over 1,600 children - and prevented from mounting legal defenses, as the edict has been extended several times by Bukele's allies in Congress, according to the report.

The 100-page report by the rights groups harshly criticized a policy of detention "quotas" that has led to arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances, with little transparency or accountability. The report concluded the policy is unsustainable since it will likely lead to more violence.

Juanita Goebertus, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, called pitting safety against basic rights a "false choice," during a webcast news conference.

"An effective security policy protects human rights," she said.

Bukele's government, which commands the National Civil Police and Armed forces, cited police data showing some crimes, like murder, have dropped significantly over the past months. The Human Rights Watch report alleges that violations were carried out repeatedly by both the military and the police.

The president did not immediately comment on the report, but he has previously shrugged off criticism, arguing his security policy has brought peace to residents who have been terrorized by gang violence over decades.

The report, based on more than 1,100 interviews as well as forensic evidence, also noted that El Salvador's prisons now stand over three times their capacity, with an estimated 95,000 behind bars.

The population of poor Central American nation, from which thousands of migrants have fled in recent years, stands at about 6.5 million.

(Reporting by Gerardo Arbaiza; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Aurora Ellis)