El Salvador doubles prison capacity with mega prison for 40,000 inmates


The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, inaugurated this Wednesday (1st) a prison with a capacity for 40,000 people, after the country reached the highest incarceration rate in the world last year.

The complex was built in a rural and isolated region of the municipality of Tecoluca, 74 km from the capital, San Salvador. A two kilometer long wall surrounds the construction, which will have 10 pavilions with reinforced concrete cells. According to the government, 600 soldiers and 250 police will guard the building.

The new prison was publicized in an official communiqué on the national radio and TV network and publicized by the Minister of Public Works, Romeo Rodríguez, as “the biggest prison in all of America”. The work should have been completed in September, but the authorities did not explain the delay.

The construction more than doubles the number of places for prisoners in the country, which currently has 20 prisons with a total capacity of 30,000 people — although more than 97,000 Salvadorans are deprived of their freedom, according to a survey by the newspaper La Prensa Gráfica. The number corresponds to 2.2% of the population over 18 years of age in the country.

The numbers made the small Central American nation of 6.5 million inhabitants reach the top of the ranking of countries with the highest incarceration rate in the world in March last year. The data are from World Prison Brief, an organization based at Birkbeck University in London.

In the promotional video, with a cinematographic air, Bukele walks around the penitentiary that he calls the Terrorism Confinement Center accompanied by the deputy minister of Justice and general director of penal centers, Osiris Luna, who introduces the space.

The piece shows what would be state-of-the-art technological equipment to search those who enter the prison, in addition to the building’s arsenal and solitary cells, where the prisoner “will not be able to see the light of day”. The beginning of transfers of detainees to the new complex has not yet been announced.

For Amparo Marroquín, political communication researcher at the Latin American Council of Social Sciences, Bukele tries to sell the idea that he produced first-world facilities, similar to what he had already done with the hospitals built to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

“He marks himself as the strong and punitive man who will put all the bad guys in prison”, says the researcher. “Symbolically, it’s the end of a narrative. ‘I punish you and now I have a perfectly equipped place to punish you.’

Johanna Ramírez, from the Passionist Social Service’s Victim Care group, says that the mega-prison created by the government does not address the real demands of the Salvadoran penitentiary system. A new arrest should imply clarity about who will be transferred, under what criteria and if there will be official notifications to the Justice.

“We continue to be concerned about the human rights situation in the country. There are those who are unaware of the legal status of their imprisoned family members and even those who do not know whether their loved ones are alive,” says Ramírez. “We hope that, with the construction of this megacenter, international organizations will be allowed to enter to investigate the situation of people arrested.”

The inauguration takes place one year before the 2024 election, in which Bukele will run against the Salvadoran Constitution, which vetoes direct re-election. The politician ended 2022 with an approval rating of 88%, a record in the Americas, according to a survey by the newspaper La Prensa Gráfica.

Bukele adopts a hard line speech. On his Twitter, the president publishes photos of the arrests and went so far as to say that he would ration food in prisons. “If the ‘international community’ is worried about its little angels, come and bring them food, because I will not take budgets from schools to feed these terrorists,” he said in a publication last year.

In this Wednesday’s video, without providing evidence, the president claims that previous governments allowed prisoners to have access to prostitutes, video games, cell phones and computers, which he called “award for delinquents”.

Under the justification of waging a war against the pandilhas, criminal groups in the country, Bukele approved, in March 2022, a state of exception in the country that lasts until today. The measure was in response to El Salvador’s deadliest weekend since 2001 – there were 87 deaths in 72 hours at the time.

Before that, the country that was one of the most violent in the world recorded days with no deaths. There is evidence that the wave of violence exploded due to the end of a government pact with criminals. In May, the newspaper El Faro revealed audio that showed negotiations between a member of the government and MS-13, one of the three main pandillas in the country. After the state of emergency, homicide rates dropped again.

Several human rights bodies, as well as residents, however, denounce the arrest of innocent people and suspected ill-treatment in penitentiary centers. On Friday (27), Human Rights Watch said that a database obtained by the organization supports the existence of severe overcrowding in prisons, massive violations of due process of law and arrests of teenagers. According to the NGO, the data is from the Ministry of Public Security and lists people processed under the state of exception.

HRW also states that, at the end of August, 1,082 minors were arrested —918 males and 164 females—, including 21 teenagers aged 12 and 13. The database also counts at least 32 people killed in state custody.

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