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El Salvador’s New “Mega Prison” and Bukele’s Crackdown on Gang-related Crime

“Our one rule, besides stick together, is don’t get caught.” This simple quote from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders highlights the struggle between group identity and self-identity, as seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy who believes he is an outsider to society. In his world, there are only two types of people, “Greasers” and “Socs,” two adolescent gangs in conflict over power. 

This theme applies just as well to many of the world’s most notorious gangs, whose members work together for the common goal of making money, legally or not. It also applies in the political realm, where corrupt politicians can make malicious deals to further their agendas. Similar in nature, the cut-throat professions of politics and gang life have crossed paths before. Their latest scuffle involves El Salvador’s government and the infamous MS-13 gang (short for “La Mara Salvatrucha”), which are locked in a conflict that has attracted attention from governments, talking heads, and human rights activists across the world. 

Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s current president, has amassed great political popularity by cracking down on crime; he has focused especially on gangs that have run El Salvador’s streets since the early 1990s and the end of the country’s 1979–1992 civil war. This past February, El Salvador implemented a new “mega prison,” formally called the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), that can house up to 40,000 prisoners.  The BBC describes this massive prison as comprising eight buildings, and each holding 32 large cells.  Primarily targeted to hold inmates convicted of acts of terrorism, CECOT just received a new batch of prisoners consisting of around 2,000 alleged MS-13 gang members.

Bukele and many people, both inside El Salvador and globally, see the prison, the influx of gang members, and the apparently related reduction in crime as causes for celebration. But Bukele’s actions have also led to worldwide suspicion from foreign governments and human rights activists. 

Governments including the U.S. have accused Salvadoran officials of making deals with gangs to lessen the number of public murders, before (and regardless of) the new prison. According to the U.S. Justice Department, this relationship has “politically benefited the government of El Salvador” by essentially making it appear to Salvadorans that the country’s extreme crackdown on crime was significantly working when in reality, the murder rate was dropping for other reasons. This suspected cooperation would let government officials control crime from behind closed doors and ultimately carry the people’s support.

From a more liberal perspective, human rights activists believe Bukele is pushing extreme security measures that produce wrongful arrests and police brutality on a massive scale. In an interview with the Washington Post, acting deputy director for the Americas at “Human Rights Watch” Juan Pappier observed that “This new mega prison is a symbol of Bukele’s mad security policies … There’s every reason to suspect the timing of the prison transfer was all about controlling the narrative and presenting an ‘iron fist’ interpretation of Bukele that fails to encapsulate the whole picture.”

With gang-related crime in El Salvador so rampant over the past 30 years, it makes sense that crime would be one of Bukele’s greatest challenges. Creating such rapid positive change no doubt has required the government to be forceful, especially in view of how threatening and lethal the gangs can be, often putting poor and at-risk teenagers through brutal initiations like getting beat up or committing murders in order to become members. Bukele’s strict intervention suggests he understands the gangs’ threat, both generally and in targeting youth. 

In early 2022, El Salvador approved a “state of exception” aimed at quickly ending criminal efforts, which revoked fundamental rights such as the “right to a lawyer and the right to private communication.” This crackdown also allowed police to conduct arrests without a search warrant or any explanation, something that naturally was likely to raise the incarceration rate and prison population as a whole. According to Reuters, Bukele has secured continual extensions of the state of exception, resulting in over 64,000 suspects being apprehended “in the anti-crime dragnet.” This controversial legislation further fuels human rights critics’ fears regarding the need to restore a sound democracy in El Salvador. 

Humanitarian groups argue that innocent people are being wrongfully identified as dangerous gang members and imprisoned. The Daily Wire reports, “According to the country’s police union, nearly one in six people who’ve been arrested were innocent, and there have been credible reports of police violence and overcrowding in prisons.” They further claim that El Salvador’s prison system is inhumane, with “at least dozens who have died in police custody” according to Reuters. These groups actively support gang members’ efforts to fight for better treatment in the new prison. Depicting the size and alleged brutality of the country’s new mega prison, BBC published photos of the 2,000 recently incarcerated MS-13 members pictured “left sitting on the floor with their hands behind their shaven heads, stacked closely together, before being taken to their cells.” Said to hold more than 100 prisoners, each cell has only two toilets and two sinks—an extreme form of treatment in itself, as such facilities clearly cannot suffice for that many people. 

Contrary to the outlook of humanitarian organizations, however, a large majority of Salvadorans appear to appreciate and support Bukele’s anti-gang push.  They “credit the measures with curbing the criminal gangs” that have caused so much ruin for decades. While they do not condone innocent civilians being falsely apprehended, Salvadorans seem less inclined to weigh that against the progress made and widely support Bukele in the belief that he is making a big difference. 

That fact does not quell the suspicions of other outsiders, like the United States government, which accused El Salvador of making deals with gangs to stop the amount of public violence. The U.S. has clearly concluded that Bukele’s success is the product of his mingling with gangs to further his political image, despite widespread Salvadoran support for his results. This theory is plausible given the nation’s approval of a ruthless state of exception and Salvadorans’ lack of access to government information. The U.S. contends that Bukele has slyly swayed public opinion by censoring information and other rights, giving Salvadorans filtered news that favors his presidency.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) further highlights Bukele’s suspected political corruption, claiming, “With information from the National Civil Police, Bukele has been reporting zero homicides in the country and again, on September 13, 2022, zero homicides were reported.” This seems an unusually high drop rate in violent deaths, even given El Salvador’s unusual successes. If accurate, the report is even more surprising because just a few months before the state of exception El Salvador was deemed one of the world’s most murderous countries.

It is hard to assess whether statistics on the declining homicide rate are true since Bukele has halted the distribution of most public information that guarantees citizens the right to seek and receive documents held by the state. WOLA adds that Bukele’s administration has modified what kinds of deaths are represented in the homicide rates. In one example that might actually support the legitimacy of Bukele’s actions, the administration has even removed “the deaths of alleged gang members in confrontations with the police.” Bukele has restructured the system to mask all information, benefitting his administration under the assurance that he has everything under control.

Bukele has spoken on these allegations many times, retreating to Twitter to flaunt his new mega prison and assure the populace, observing “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population … They’re not scary anymore, are they?” Bukele’s method of mass incarceration has produced quick and relatively easy results. But whether it has come at the cost of the people’s freedom, and whether that cost is reasonable, are open questions. Things like a lack of information on the veracity of the homicide rates make those answers even less clear.

El Salvador’s state of emergency is a reckless solution to a reckless problem. The longer it exists, the more it erodes El Salvador’s democracy, and as long as it keeps being renewed, Salvadorans will remain under a false sense of security. For El Salvador to justly solve its criminal conflicts, it should suspend the state of exception and reform its prison system. International attention will continue to play an important role in raising awareness of the controlling dynamics at play in El Salvador. Gang violence must be addressed by targeting gangs rigorously, not by negotiating with them. That being said, Bukele’s government should not simply incarcerate people who have the slightest relation to any aspect of a gang, though it appears that is what the government has done. If innocent people are mistakenly apprehended, already or going forward, they will also need the right to a lawyer to help retrieve their freedom. Regardless, El Salvador must give its people their fundamental rights back, and only then pursue violence head-on.

Featured Image Source: Al Jazeera

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