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El Salvador

Why human rights groups are calling out El Salvador's new mega prison

Author: Editors Desk Source: CBC News:
March 1, 2023 at 13:36
Inmates wait to be taken to their cells after 2,000 men were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, El Salvador's new mega prison. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters)
Inmates wait to be taken to their cells after 2,000 men were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, El Salvador's new mega prison. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters)

Human Rights Watch says innocent people are among the 64,000 suspected gang members arrested in crackdown

This story contains images of inmates that may be disturbing.

The government of El Salvador is touting its new "mega prison" as a show of force in its war on gang violence, but human rights organizations say it will only create more problems.

On Friday, the country moved 2,000 inmates to the new facility in Tecoluca, which can hold 40,000 people, and is considered the largest prison in the Americas.

It was a high-profile event, accompanied by slick government-produced footage and photos, showing prisoners — many bearing gang tattoos — stripped down to white shorts, with their heads shaved, running into their new cells.

"This will be their new home, where they won't be able to do any more harm to the population," President Nayib Bukele said on Twitter.

Last year, El Salvador's Congress passed what's called a state of exception, which suspends some constitutional rights after a dramatic spike in murders attributed to violent gangs. Arrests can be made without a warrant, private communications are accessible by the government, and detainees no longer have the right to a lawyer. 

More than 64,000 people have been arrested under the state of exception, which has been repeatedly extended.

The government credits the crackdown for a reduction in gang-related homicides. But the U.S. government has accused El Salvador of cutting secret deals with MS-13 gang members to cut back on killings. Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and local organization Cristosal, have condemned the mass arrests and the new prison. 

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Human Rights Watch's acting director for the Americas, spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

I'm wondering what your first impressions were when you saw the video of these men being transferred to El Salvador's new super prison?

When I saw those images, I thought they were a very vivid reflection of President Bukele's punitive public security policies that include, you know, an 11-month long state of exception, the detention of more than 64,000 people. Many of them were tortured in detention [and] arbitrarily arrested.

Two tattooed men, heads shaven and stripped to their white underwear, kneel on the floor, heads bowed and hands cuffed in front, as armed prison guards with balaclavas covering their faces stand watch.
El Salvador says the men transferred to the prison are gang members, but Human Rights Watch says innocent people are likely among those arrested. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters)

What did you make of that kind of presentation — highly produced [videos with] the music underneath?

President Bukele continuously tries to control the narrative of what is happening in the country, and he does that with a lot of investment and PR. 

The timing is not a coincidence, though, because it happened right after an indictment in the U.S. where evidence was presented that public officials from the government of Bukele have been negotiating with gangs to reduce homicide rates outside of the prisons, to obtain electoral support in exchange of prison benefits, and stopping the extradition of certain gang leaders to the U.S.

So it seems to be, on the one hand, part of this pattern of highly produced materials to control the public narrative of what's happening in the country and hide the abuses that they commit, but also a way to channel the public discussion away from this indictment and this information that actually shows how poor the public security strategy is of this government.

How are people in El Salvador responding to that narrative and these videos?

Unfortunately, President Bukele remains extremely popular in the country, partly because of how effective this narrative is, [and] partly because he has, in the short term, been able to reduce certain homicide rates.

But the question that I think we need to be asking ourselves is: Is this sustainable? Is this a sustainable public security policy? And the history of El Salvador shows that these "get tough on crime" measures are not effective to control public security, which is a legitimate concern for the people.

You know, gangs in Salvador have committed horrible abuses and they deserve to be investigated and prosecuted. But that should be done with due process. Because when a government does what the current Salvadoran government is doing, the consequence is that you really don't know who is being locked up. Because people are being rounded up because they have a tattoo [or] because they were in a certain place at a certain time.

And you have all of them inside prisons together with some people who have committed crimes. And the consequence is, I would say, a finishing school for delinquents. 

The question is: What is going to happen afterwards when they have to release people that actually can't be convicted of crimes in any serious judicial investigation?


Hundreds of men, all with shaved heads and sporting nothing but white underwear, sit on the floor in compact rows, their hands on the backs of their heads and their faces buried into each other's backs, forming a massive square. Armed prison guards surround them.
El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele says these men 'won't be able to do any more harm to the population.' (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters)

The government says that it's working, that it is reducing crime. But what do you think it suggests about where the country is headed?

You can't argue that homicide rates have gone down. But if you look at why, the evidence points to an obscure negotiation between government officials and gangs. 

If you really want to address public insecurity in El Salvador, what you need to do is find prosecutors that are willing to prosecute the top members of these gangs with due process. 

You have to provide alternatives to young people in El Salvador so that they have employment [and] education opportunities, and they have an alternative to going into a gang.

Without that, these sorts of short-term easy fixes won't really solve the problem of insecurity for Salvadorans in the long term.

Six men with shaved heads and white underwear run forward, their heads bowed and their arms cuffed behind their backs, as dozens of police officers in black riot gear surround them.
Human Rights Watch says government images like this of the prison transfer are propaganda. (Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Reuters)

What kind of opposition is there within the country? Or do they have the ability to convey their opposition, given [the president's] popularity?

Part of the problem is that he's cracked down on independent media and civil society, and it's very risky to step up and speak up about the abuses. 

And the other concern is that he's been able to export this system to address insecurity, and it's becoming a thing in Latin America. You have governments in other countries that are trying to emulate these sorts of policies, are pointing towards Bukele as a model to deal with insecurity.

And that is extremely problematic because it speaks, in the end, to the fact that democracies and democratic leaders in Latin America aren't being able to deliver to the people.

People are concerned about poverty and security and inequality. And if you don't have democratic leaders who deliver on these legitimate concerns within the boundaries of democracy, you generate conditions for leaders like Bukele to become extremely popular. 

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