El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele and first lady Gabriela Roberta...

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele and first lady Gabriela Roberta Rodríguez wave from a balcony after he was sworn in for a second term, in San Salvador, El Salvador, June 1, 2024. Known for his heavy-handed crackdown on street gangs, threatened to use similar tactics against price gougers, Bukele said in a speech late Friday, July 5. Credit: AP/Salvador Melendez

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, famous for his heavy-handed crackdown on street gangs, threatened to use similar tactics against price gougers.

Since 2022, Bukele has rounded up tens of thousands of suspected street gang members — often on little evidence — and filmed them being frog-marched in their underwear though vast new prisons.

In a speech late Friday, he threatened to use the same tactics on wholesalers and distributors who he blamed for a recent steep rise in the prices for food items and other basic goods.

“I am going to issue a call, like we did to the gangs at the start of 2019," Bukele said, referring to the year he was first elected. “We told them either stop killing people, or don't complain about what happens afterward.”

"Well, I'm going to issue a message to the importers, distributors and food wholesalers: stop abusing the people of El Salvador, or don’t complain about what happens afterward.”

He said “we are not playing around” and his threats were not a smokescreen. “I expect the prices to come down by tomorrow or there are going to be problems,” he said.

Recently reelected with 85% of the vote, Bukele controls Congress and has been granted special emergency powers to fight gangs for more than two years.

While his emergency powers probably wouldn't allow Bukele to lock people up for charging too much, he claimed there was evidence that wholesalers or importers had allegedly engaged in tax evasion, bribery and contraband importation, criminal charges that could warrant jail time.

The Salvadoran government has said inspectors have found some products had tripled in price, and while fines are a possibility, that probably isn't enough. The government has also announced plans to set up 20 sales points to distribute food “at fair prices.”

It's all very much in character for Bukele, who once described himself as the “world’s coolest dictator.”

Bukele is also riding a wave of popularity for his frontal attack on powerful gangs that once basically ruled many neighborhoods, extorting protection money from businesses and residents. The crackdown has converted what was once the world’s murder capital into one of Latin America’s safest countries.

The state of emergency originally declared in 2022 and still in effect has been used to round up 78,175 suspected gang members in sweeps that rights groups say are often arbitrary, based on a person’s appearance or where they live. The government has had to release about 7,000 people because of a lack of evidence.

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