El Salvador bets safety on incarceration; unveils new prison

TECOLUCA, El Salvador (AP) — When El Salvador began making mass arrests of people with suspected gang affiliations last year, President Nayib Bukele ordered the construction of what would be the largest prison in Latin America.

This week, Bukele rolled out the completed project, a sprawling campus 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of the capital, that could eventually house 40,000 inmates.

Dubbed the Terrorism Confinement Center, the prison will hold many of the more than 62,000 people authorities have arrested since the government suspended some constitutional rights and pushed an all-out offensive against the gangs last March.

The effort enjoys broad support in El Salvador, but has been strongly criticized by human rights organizations and some foreign governments for its lack of due process and other abuses.

Bukele put it in simple terms in a tweet Thursday: “El Salvador has managed to go from being the world’s most dangerous country, to the safest country in the Americas. How did we do it? By putting criminals in jail. Is there space? There is now.”

It has been a few years since El Salvador held that unenviable distinction – there were 6,656 homicides in 2015 – but the country lowered that total to 3,495 homicides last year, the lowest in decades. The government does not include some 120 killings of alleged gang members by authorities in that figure.

The last time the government provided the prison population, it was nearly 36,000 in April 2021. The country’s 29 prisons were then at 120% of their capacity. In the past 10 months, the government has nearly tripled the population.

During a tour of the new prison Thursday night, Public Works Minister Romeo Rodríguez said each cell could hold more than 100 inmates. The government has not said when it will begin transferring prisoners.

Critics of Bukele’s strongarm tactics say that in the long term El Salvador will not be able to arrest and jail its way out of its security problems.

“With this prison, the administration of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador shows that it doesn’t have clear plans to prevent crime,” Carolina Jimenez, president of the Latin America-focused non-governmental organization WOLA, tweeted. “His main choice is a permanent state of ‘exception’ in which they commit human rights violations.”

Rev. Andreu Oliva, rector of the Jesuit-founded Central American University in San Salvador, said the focus on punishment was worrisome.

“It shook me to see punishment cells where the people are going to be in total darkness, total isolation, sleeping on a concrete slab,” he said. With no library or rooms for education or training, he saw little that could help prisoners who wanted to leave criminal life.

With no talk of rehabilitation, critics like Oliva question what there will await inmates when they are released other than a return to the gangs.

Bukele has dismissed critics as defenders of gangsters. His popular support remains high. Days pass without a murder. Neighborhoods that spent years under total control of gangs are drawing back some of the residents who fled them.

Month after month, El Salvador’s congress renews the state of exception imposed in late March after gangsters killed 62 people in a single day. The right of association, the right to be informed of the reason for an arrest and access to a lawyer remain suspended.

There is little sympathy for gang members. For years, they’ve terrorized swaths of El Salvador’s territory, extorting and killing at will.

In 2015, the Supreme Court declared the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 terrorist groups.

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Alemán reported from San Salvador, El Salvador.

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