El Salvador hosts Miss Universe as protesters denounce mass arrests

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - At least 300 people protested in El Salvador on Saturday against an anti-gang crackdown they said was putting innocent people behind bars, hours before the Central American country hosts the Miss Universe competition for the first time since 1975.

Some constitutional guarantees have been suspended since March 2022 in a controversial state of exception championed by President Nayib Bukele. The move has enabled state security forces to arrest more than 70,000 alleged gang members.

The crackdown is widely popular among Salvadorans and has helped reduce crime and homicide rates, attracting international events like Miss Universe, which El Salvador has reportedly invested $60 million to host.

Human rights groups, however, have alleged that the crackdown has led to arbitrary arrests, torture and the deaths of detainees.

Protesters in the capital San Salvador marched on Saturday from the city's Monument to the Constitution to a hotel where dozens of Miss Universe delegates are staying.

"We want Miss Universe to see that Salvadorans are suffering," said Guadalupe Avila, 67, whose 27-year-old son Carlos was arrested 19 months ago.

"This country is not what they have been told," Avila said, holding a sign with photos of her son, an artist, and documents that show a clean criminal record.

Some protesters wore sashes that said "Miss Political Prisoners," "Miss Persecution," and "Miss Mass Trials," referencing group trials that have been announced for thousands of people arrested in the crackdown.

Dozens of police and soldiers guarded the building and patrolled with armored vehicles as protesters demonstrated outside.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)