The biggest prison in the Americas will set records for overcrowding. But El Salvador’s president says it’s necessary to control gang violence.
El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele – who frequently sports a baseball cap, sunglasses, a black leather jacket and a perfectly manicured beard – wouldn’t look out of place on a reality TV show. But, he is a deadly serious politician:
“Let’s see how long the ‘homeboys’ can last in prison. I swear to God they won’t eat a single grain of rice and we’ll see how long they last.”Channel 4 News
“Let’s see how long the ‘homeboys’ can last in prison”, President Bukele tells his supporters. “I swear to God they won’t eat a single grain of rice and we’ll see how long they last”.
These recent comments from the 41-year-old – who has described himself as ‘the world’s coolest dictator’ – might seem like a hollow threat from a populist blowhard.
But they are a carefully choreographed reference to his clampdown on criminality – which has culminated in the creation of a fearsome “mega prison” which will eventually hold up to forty thousand inmates.
Nayib Bukele first gained notoriety in 2021, following his decision to make El Salvador the first country in the world to accept Bitcoin as legal tender.
El Salvador – which is nestled between Honduras, Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean – is the smallest nation in Central America. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
President Bukele ‘declared a war’ on the country’s gangs and imposed a nationwide state of emergency a year ago:
“Thousands of mostly young men have been arrested over the last few weeks as El Salvador tries to clampdown on gang violence. New emergency powers means the police can hold suspects for fifteen days without evidence or access to lawyers. Many here claim the crackdown is indiscriminate.”
Many of those detained in recent months have been sent to the hastily constructed complex 40 miles from the capital San Salvador.
Nayib Bukele has bragged that it is “impossible to escape” from the facility.
It’s indisputable that El Salvador – which has the highest incarceration rate in the world – is in desperate need of a more modern prison system.
But the ominously named Center for Confining Terrorism is certainly not it. The president turned up for the bizarre and grim unveiling ceremony surrounded by the country’s elite security forces. The photo op garnered El Salvador international press attention:
“Hundreds of prisoners barefoot and stripped down to white shorts scurry into El Salvador’s new mega-prison. Ordered to crouch down on the ground one after another.”
Detailed satellite analysis of the facility for The Financial Times has found that the mega prison “will set records for deliberately designed overcrowding”.
Each of the eight prison buildings has 32 cells of about 100 square metres to hold “more than 100” prisoners, the government says. Each cell has just two sinks and two toilets.
Photos of the inmates show them looking identical – covered from head to toe with heavily pigmented tattoos, symbols of some of the country’s most feared gangs. Their heads are all shaved.
Human rights groups have pointed out that prisoners are deliberately prevented from accessing the most basic of needs – such as daylight and bedding.
The inmates are closely watched by heavily armed guards in jet black riot gear…as they clamber for what space there is on steel bunks.
So, what impact is President Bukele’s war on gangs having on his political standing?
El Salvador has been beset by gang violence for decades.
After the end of the country’s civil war in the early 90s, Salvadoran gang members living in the United States were forcibly deported back to their homeland. The sky-high rates of criminal violence that were once LA’s problem went with them to El Salvador.
President Bukele is not the first president – and probably won’t be the last – to attempt to stamp out these deep-seated problems:
“Gangs and violence are an unfortunate part of life in El Salvador. It is a big issue. But the way that he is going about it is causing a lot of concern…it is concerning for a lot of us who are Salvadoreans.”
Some media outlets – including CNN – have reported that the crackdown has been used as a smokescreen to detract from US claims of clandestine peace talks between Mr Bukele’s government and senior members of El Salvador’s most feared criminals. Whatever the reality, President Bukele’s ruthless approach to law and order has seen his popularity soar. A recent poll suggested he has an approval rating of almost ninety per cent.
This episode was written and mixed by Rhys James.