El Salvador Is Imprisoning People at Triple the Rate of the US

El Salvador has jailed 1.6% of its population under President Nayib Bukele’s unprecedented gang crackdown

(Bloomberg) — El Salvador’s prison population has tripled to 100,000 in less than two years under President Nayib Bukele’s crackdown on gangs, his security minister said, disclosing for the first time how many people the government has jailed.

Since March 2022, Salvadoran authorities have arrested more than 72,600 people on suspicions of being gang members, Gustavo Villatoro, El Salvador’s Justice and Public Safety minister, said in an interview. While none of the detainees have been sentenced, the country’s prison population has tripled to a total of 100,000, “more or less,” Villatoro said.

This means El Salvador has imprisoned 1.6% of its 6.3 million citizens. That gives it an incarceration rate triple that of the US and more than double that of Cuba, the world’s runner up, according to data from the UK-based World Prison Brief.

The government of El Salvador hasn’t formally disclosed information about its prison population since 2020, before Bukele invoked emergency powers to begin his unprecedented moves against the gangs. Human-rights groups have criticized the president’s increasingly authoritarian actions and called out his anti-gang campaign. Yet the campaign has also made the country safer and boosted his popularity among Salvadorans.

The arrest spree has also expanded El Salvador’s network of prisons. Bloomberg obtained exclusive access to the country’s newest and largest prison and the centerpiece of Bukele’s campaign against the gangs: the Terrorism Detention Center, known as Cecot. Despite having capacity for 40,000 inmates, so far, it houses only 12,000, according to the prison’s director, who declined to be identified out of concern for his safety.

By 2015, El Salvador had become the most violent country the world, thanks in large part to gangs like MS-13, made up initially of Salvadoran gang members in the US who’d been deported back home. “In many of our communities, it was considered an aspiration for our teens and kids to join a gang,” Villatoro said. “They saw these groups as the ones in control.”

In March 2022, Bukele kicked off his anti-gang crackdown by instituting a “state of exception” that gave authorities broad powers to jail people. For hardliners, it has been effective: As El Salvador’s incarceration rate has shot up, its murder rate has plummeted. “When will the state of exception end? When we have subjected the very last of these terrorists to justice,” Villatoro said. 

Critics of Bukele’s policies like Abraham Abrego, a lawyer at the human rights group Cristosal, believe the president’s actions have resulted in the ongoing detention of thousands of innocents. “In practice, the state of exception has been a practice of mass arbitrary detentions, because there is no prior investigation, nor a judicial order,” Abrego said. 

Terrorism Detention Center

Located in an isolated corner of El Salvador, Cecot is a massive complex. No one can approach its entrance without authorization. Inmates aren’t allowed to receive visitors.

During Bloomberg’s visit, Cecot’s director pointedly ordered the prisoners to remove their uniform white t-shirts and show off their tattoos, many  of which were associated with gang membership — evidence that can be used to convict them, the government has said. 

Inside one of Cecot’s units, about 80 inmates shared a single cell where they sleep on hard bunk beds without mattresses or pillows. Some of the inmates have contracted tuberculosis, the director said.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal, since the state of exception began, the government has reported at least 90 deaths at its prisons — none of which have occurred at Cecot, its director said.

“The jail is the biggest monument to justice that we have ever built since the history of our nation began at the time of our independence,” Villatoro said. It is designed for “serial killers,” as he called them, to “stay there for the rest of their lives.”

Villatoro said El Salvador will overhaul its justice system to expedite sentences for those already incarcerated. The system is already overwhelmed: The country’s older prisons now hold 88,000 detainees, versus 30,000 before the state of exception, according to Villatoro. (Government officials did not grant Bloomberg  access to any of its older, more crowded jails.) 

At Cecot, the government intends to show it respects human rights. But Villatoro said that human rights organizations are obsessed with the rights of criminals, which he often refers to as “beings” rather than as people. 

“Delinquents and criminals have human rights. Of course they have human rights,” he said. “But they are limited.”  

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