El Salvador rounds up thousands of young men of ‘gangster’ age in crackdown

El Salvador has continued its relentless crackdown on criminal groups by rounding up thousands of men of "gangster" age.

In late March, the country's president declared state of emergency amid a wave of gang-related killings over one weekend that saw 76 people slain in just two days.

El Salvador's Congress approved emergency powers that temporarily suspended some constitutional protections after the Central American country recorded the sharp rise in killings attributed to criminal gangs.

The clampdown has drawn complaints of rights abuses, and experts say mass arrests are only a stop-gap as long as so many Salvadorans have no feasible exit from a life inside.

Either way, police and military have rounded up more than 18,000 alleged gang members in just a month and lawmakers have extended the state of emergency for another month.

Despite the cries from human rights groups, residents have breathed a sigh of relief.

"On some of my routes, the criminals are no longer collecting protection money," bus company operator Juan Pablo Alvarez told AFP.

The gangs have extracted a heavy toll from him over the years, he said.

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"I have had to bury my brother, more than 10 colleagues and 25 employees, mainly drivers," he added.

In the city centre of San Salvador, where even vegetable sellers fall victim to racketeers, vendor Felipe told AFP he, too, was enjoying a reprieve from being shaken down.

"We are not paying anything, the guys (gangsters) have not been seen, they have practically disappeared and the trade is flowing," said Felipe, who preferred to withhold his last name for fear of reprisal.

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Clients "have stopped being afraid of coming to the (city) centre."

Eduardo Cader, president of the Salvadoran Industry Association, said delivery trucks were able to enter certain areas where they previously had to pay bribes.

According to a recent CID Gallup poll, an overwhelming majority of Salvadorans support Bukele's anti-gang operation.

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