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Opening of the new mega-prison in El Salvador with a spectacular show of force

By Florian Rötzer

President Nayib Bukele built a prison for 40,000 suspected gang members according to the security strategy through incarceration.

During the crackdown on gang crime with the Plan Control Territorial, more than 60,000 members were arrested in one year in El Salvador, which has a population of just 6.5 million, using controversial methods that are called by some dubious and have been criticized by human rights organizations.

Even without a court order, suspects may be detained and held indefinitely. Thousands have been innocently detained, including many minors, according to an HRW report published in January.

Since President Nayib Bukele came to power in 2019, the number of killings has decreased significantly, with 2 per 100,000 in January and no killings so far in February.

According to him, he has made El Salvador the safest country; his method: lock them away in prison.

While at first it was assumed Bukele had made a deal with the gangs that control parts of the country as in other Central American states, he declared war on the “pandillas,” the gang members, such as the maras, declared a state of emergency and immediately began building the largest central prison in the Americas to confine them there and isolate them from society.

Security forces surrounded and searched entire cities in the war against gangs, also known as the anti-terror war.

El Salvador has also surpassed the U.S. as the country with the highest prison population relative to the population to date, with 80,000 prisoners in crowded jails.

The supposedly escape-proof prison with a water and electricity supply, with 11-meter-high walls and an electric fence, is used for mass detention.

Opening of the new mega-prison in El Salvador with a spectacular show of force. (Photo internet reproduction)
Opening of the new mega-prison in El Salvador with a spectacular show of force. (Photo internet reproduction)

There, 40,000 prisoners are said to be held in eight wings, each with 32 large cells for more than 100 prisoners.

In each wing, there are isolation and dark punishment cells. The prisoners cannot go outside.

There are no courtyards or outdoor recreation areas.

Built on 165 acres of land in a remote location in Tecoluca, the prisoners are not supposed to believe, as Bukele says, that they are in a hotel.

They are supposed to be working, producing something for society, and alleviating some of the damage they caused.

The president explains that in prison, they will live for decades without being able to do any more harm to society.

His Justice Minister, Gustavo Villatoror, says: “Cell by cell, we will remove this cancer from society. You know you will never get out of CECOT; you will pay for what you are … cowardly terrorists.”

President Nayib Bukele, inspecting the new prison. (Photo internet reproduction)
President Nayib Bukele inspected the new prison. (Photo internet reproduction)

As Bernhard Wiens also wrote in his article on the history of prisons (The Prison as Social Design), the president of El Salvador seems to believe that by cleaning up society by locking away the criminals (and innocents caught in the web of persecution) as well as punishing them, he can also banish crime from society.

Not only could the remaining gangs become radicalized, and mass prisons have always been hotbeds of crime, but the purge and lockdown itself will create crime with abuse, corruption, persecution of the innocent, arbitrary arrests, undermining of an orderly rule of law, at the latest when the government changes or it becomes a dictatorship.

Accordingly, there is little talk of social reforms to combat poverty.

This post was published first here. 

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