Gangs in El Salvador: why President Nayib Bukele wants everyone to know about his new prison


Last week, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele posted a typical divisive video on Twitter. To the sound of exciting fast-paced music, hundreds of detainees could be seen being transferred to a new “megaprison” officially named the Center for Confining Terrorism. It was built last year to house the Central American country’s burgeoning prison population. It is the largest prison in America, with a capacity of 40,000 inmates.

Expertly edited with close-ups of inmates’ tattoos coupled with nighttime drone footage of the prison, the video went viral in the region and was praised by far-right commentators in the US, such as Harrison Smith of Infowars and Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire . For many Salvadoran and foreign fans of the far-right president, the video represented the ultimate vindication of Bukele’s iron fist in fighting crime and restoring pride to the country’s armed forces.

But for human rights activists and pro-democracy groups, the video underscored the risks facing democracy in El Salvador as state security takes precedence over constitutional rights amid an indefinite state of emergency.

And for the Bukele government’s closest observers, the timing of the footage released was most notable, 24 hours after a damning US indictment detailing how El Salvador’s government allegedly made secret deals with the notorious gang MS-13.

In the indictment unveiled Feb. 23, US attorneys accused members of Bukele’s government of masking themselves to secretly enter prisons across the country and conduct secret conversations with MS-13 gang leaders.

The allegation — which also accuses the Salvadoran government of releasing an MS-13 mobster wanted by the United States for extradition — is contained in recently declassified court documents related to the trial of several MS-13 members in a district court in New York.

While it does not name government officials who allegedly negotiated with gangs, the indictment paints a scathing picture of favors — including shorter jail terms and more comfortable prison conditions — extended by Bukele’s government to one of the world’s bloodiest criminal gangs in exchange for aid. fulfilling his campaign promise to reduce the country’s homicide rate.

“In return, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public killings in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador by creating the perception that the government was reducing the number of murders,” the statement claims. charge.

“In fact, MS-13 leaders continued to approve killings in which the bodies of the victims were buried or otherwise concealed,” it adds.

Salvadoran authorities did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this article.

Bukele has built up an image of ‘toughness against crime’ and imposed strict policies on the rest of the population. In March last year, he suspended constitutional rights in the country, allowing Salvadoran security forces to detain citizens suspected of gang membership.

As a result, the number of incarcerations has increased enormously. As of mid-2022, up to 2% of El Salvador’s population aged 18 and over, or about 100,000 people, were in prison, according to an assessment by Amnesty International based on local media reports.

Since the state of emergency was declared, more than 60,000 people have been sent to prison – more than 150 people a day – according to government figures, raising alarm among human rights activists who say the grounds for some of the arrests are insufficient.

A group of inmates are transferred to a new prison in El Salvador.

“The cases included people who were arbitrarily arrested because of their physical appearance, because they had a tattoo, because they were in a specific neighborhood, a specific time,” HRW Americas acting director, Tamara Taraciuk, told CNN.

“There is no clarity or evidence that these people actually committed a crime or were involved in this mass roundup. This poses a huge problem for public safety.”

One of the main concerns shared by Taraciuk is that many prisoners come into close contact with criminal groups as a result of their detention, as prisoners are kept together in communal cells and that means gangsters are given optimal conditions to recruit new members for the criminals. recruit. syndicates.

Other human rights groups have criticized the lack of legal guarantees for the detainees, and according to local NGO Cristosal, at least 80 detainees died in unclear circumstances behind bars between March and October last year when the state of emergency was enacted.

In light of allegations from the US Justice Department accusing Bukele government officials of secretly negotiating a pact with the gangs while cultivating a reputation for not making a fist in the fight against the crime, the human rights violations are even more difficult, activists say, because the hardship only affects the lower ranks of the criminal world, while the top men received special treatment.

Yet Bukele enjoys a popularity that most leaders around the world can only dream of. In November last year, according to a poll by the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, 89% of Salvadorans agreed with their president, who has repeatedly rejected charges of ruling by decree.

The 41-year-old leader even seemed to embrace the controversy, describing himself on Twitter as “the coolest dictator in the world.”

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