SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – President Nayib Bukele and a group of soldiers armed with automatic weapons briefly occupied Salvadoran Congress on Sunday, stepping up a campaign to force lawmakers to back a plan to fight crime.

Watched by soldiers in combat uniforms, Bukele, 38, sat in the seat reserved for the President of Congress and joined hands in praying, he said, to be patient with lawmakers, few of whom presented themselves at the extraordinary session.

“If these shameless people do not approve of the territorial control plan, we will summon you here again next Sunday,” he told his supporters in a fiery speech outside, as he left the building.

Lawmakers were due to meet on Monday to discuss the president’s proposals, Congress President Mario Ponce said in a possible sign of de-escalation.

Critics, however, have warned of a looming constitutional crisis. Human Rights Watch, a US-based group, called the event a “show of brutal force” and said the Organization of American States should meet urgently to discuss the situation.

Bukele was elected last year after a savvy social media campaign fueling popular discontent against two parties that have ruled the Central American country since the end of a civil war.

Channeling that same frustration with mainstream parties, he attacked Congress for dragging its feet over approving a $ 109 million multilateral loan that he sought to equip police and soldiers to tackle crime. .

His cabinet called Sunday’s special session after Bukele said Friday that Salvadorans have a legal right to insurgency in such situations, calling for protests and briefly removing security protection details from lawmakers.

The president’s decision to pressure lawmakers was backed by Defense Minister René Merino Monroy and Police Director Mauricio Arriaza Chicas.

However, Salvadoran think tank FUSADES said there was no reason for the executive to convene such a session, since Congress was functioning normally.

Hundreds of Salvadorans responded to Bukele’s call to protest on Sunday, waving banners and whistling in front of Congress, as soldiers and police stood by their side to protect them, a Reuters witness said.

“We are here because of the insecurity we have in our country, and lawmakers do not want to recognize it,” said Adelma Campos, a 43-year-old housewife. “They don’t want to work for the people who gave them their voice. “

Although El Salvador’s murder rate has fallen sharply since Bukele came to power, authorities continue to fight the gangs that control a large area of ​​the Central American country.

In a statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Sunday for “dialogue and full respect for democratic institutions to guarantee the rule of law, including the independence of branches of public power.”

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Written by Julia Love; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez

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