Mega prison for gang members generates controversy in El Salvador

Mega prison for gang members generates controversy in El Salvador

The government of President Nayib Bukele extols the construction of a mega prison to incarcerate thousands of gang members in El Salvador, but various sectors maintain that the promotion of such a prison project instead of schools and hospitals will not solve the security problems of long-term and would threaten human rights in the Central American country.

At the beginning of the week, Bukele presented to the country what he called the Confinement Center for Terrorism (CECOT), a huge prison complex with a capacity for 40,000 inmates, in the midst of his strong offensive against gangs. The authorities assure that it is the largest prison in Latin America and that it has state-of-the-art technology to prevent escapes.

The government said the jail has been designed to hold gang leaders, including the heads of so-called cliques, or groups, as well as their members and collaborators. “All those who belong to terrorist groups,” said the director of Penal Centers, Osiris Luna. No transfer of inmates to that center has yet been carried out.

The prison was built in the municipality of Tecoluca, in the department of San Vicente, far from urban areas and 74 kilometers from the capital. There, the prisoners will not have any contact with the outside world and will only leave their cells for hearings with the courts of justice, which will be held by video conference from a local room.

“With this prison, the government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador shows that it does not have clear plans to prevent crime. Their main option is a state of permanent ‘exception’ in which human rights violations are committed,” said Carolina Jiménez, president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA, for its acronym in English), on her Twitter account.

Father Andreu Oliva, rector of the Jesuit-run José Simeón Cañas Catholic University (UCA), agrees that the mega-prison is very focused on punitive matters. “I was shocked to see punishment cells where people are going to be in total darkness, in total isolation, sleeping on a cement board,” he said.

Oliva, a fervent critic of the government’s security policies, also criticized the fact that the modern prison does not have a library, classrooms so that gang members can train and change their criteria and abandon the criminal life.

“Far from prioritizing the construction of hospitals, which already have financing, the government focuses on building prisons quickly,” said congresswoman Rosa Romero, from the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena).

Bukele promised to lift the huge prison complex exclusively for gang members a few days after Congress decreed the emergency regime to persecute these groups and after 62 homicides were recorded during a single day, on March 26, 2022.

According to critics, the state of emergency, which has lasted for months, limits freedom of association and suspends a person’s right to be duly informed of their rights and grounds for arrest, as well as the assistance of a lawyer.

National and international organizations have condemned the emergency regime for alleged massive violations of due process, extreme overcrowding in prisons, and deaths in the custody of the authorities.

But the Salvadoran government has said that it is not going to listen to these organizations claiming that they are doing the right thing, and they cite polls that show high citizen support for security policies and the administration of President Bukele.

According to official figures, 62,975 people have been detained since the emergency regime was implemented. At least 3,313 of those detained have been released because a link to the gangs could not be established, according to authorities.

El Salvador registered some 6,656 homicides in 2015, a rate of 106 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, while in 2022 the figure was 3,495 homicides, the lowest in recent decades, according to the government. However, this does not include the nearly 120 murders of suspected gang members who died in alleged clashes with security forces.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador declared the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs terrorist groups, which authorities say are involved in drug trafficking and organized crime, and which extort merchants and transportation companies and murder those who refuse to pay, they add.

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