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.
“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.
Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Public Security Hector Gustavo Villatoro pushed back on the U.S. State Department’s assessment, insisting that “detentions in El Salvador are not arbitrary,” but are instead “carried forth as required by law … every step of the way.”
“There are a handful of U.S. citizens detained,” Villatoro told Fox News Digital. “Keep in mind that citizenship does not equal immunity from prosecution.”
Villatoro assured that detainees have access to embassy consular services, which is “currently being carried out,” but that in El Salvador “anyone suspect of gang activity is detained and followed by investigation … regardless of nationality or where they were born.”
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.
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 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.
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. The White House did not respond to a Fox News Digital request for comment by time of publication.