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El Salvador’s massive new prison and the strongman behind it, explained

President Nayib Bukele promised to end gang violence. It may come at the expense of human and civil rights.

Shirtless inmates with tattoos, photographed from above. Extremely crowded conditions with bodies pressed against each other.
Suspected gang members arrive at the new prison in Tecoluca, El Salvador, on February 25, 2023.
Press Secretary Of The Presidency Of El Salvador/ Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

El Salvador’s autocratic President Nayib Bukele brought the first 2,000 prisoners into the country’s new high-volume prison, built ostensibly to house members of gangs, including MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18, that have terrorized the Central American nation. The prison, officially called the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), has reignited serious concerns about Bukele’s government, including possible human rights violations and subversion of democratic institutions.

El Salvador has long struggled to contain the brutal gang violence that has dominated daily life for many of its people for decades; extortion, kidnapping, murder, smuggling, and other brutalities have persisted, to some degree, since the late 1990s due to the social, economic, and political instability left by the civil war, which ended in 1992. Successive presidential administrations have taken different approaches — many have adopted the mano dura, or “iron hand” tack, instituting harsh crackdowns to mitigate the violence. But Bukele is on an entirely different level; his administration has imprisoned tens of thousands, many arbitrarily, repeatedly extended a state of emergency severely curtailing the rights of ordinary citizens, and attacked and even detained his critics in the press.

Bukele showed off the prison with a slickly produced, if dystopian, video on his Twitter feed. Each cell is to hold 100 prisoners, with only two sinks and two toilets for the group — due to the militarized police force and remote location of the prison, it’s a situation that could become combustible when the facility reaches its capacity of 40,000 inmates.

What’s more, Bukele’s tough tactics appear to be popular with Salvadorans overwhelmed by years of living under the brutal rule of gang violence. Using underhanded media tactics, Bukele manipulates the fear of the populace and the violence it’s endured to consolidate his grip on power, while all but eliminating transparency surrounding his security strategy and alleged cooperation with gang members.

Bukele offers security after decades of conflict and violence

Bukele is not the first Salvadoran president to institute hard-line anti-violence policies, but he is perhaps the most aggressive. Under Bukele’s rule around 65,000 people have been incarcerated for gang activity, Noah Bullock, the executive director of Cristosal, a human rights organization focused on Latin America, told Vox in an interview. Those arrests have come during a state of emergency, or state of exception, that Bukele declared last March after MS-13 and two different factions of Barrio 18 murdered 87 people in the span of 72 hours.

“During the last 20 years, in different moments, El Salvador has been the most violent country in the world,” Bullock told Vox in an interview. “The presence of organized criminal groups in communities has impacted people’s lives almost totally, absolutely, and created conditions of violence, levels of violence, that compare to armed conflict.”

The gang violence follows a brutal civil war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992 and killed around 75,000 people, as well as decades of military dictatorship. The civil war forced between 20 and 25 percent of the Salvadoran population to flee — many to the US, where MS-13 was born in the 1980s. Some members of MS-13 and Barrio 18, which like MS-13 began in the Los Angeles area, were deported back to El Salvador, where they could operate with relative impunity, even from prison. And with weapons left over from the war, gang members on the street could engage in extortion, kidnapping, and murder, as well as make money through the illicit drug and human trafficking trades.

“People never experienced the freedoms promised by liberal democracy,” Bullock said. “They never experienced what rule of law meant.”

It’s now widely understood that the Bukele government has been negotiating with gangs — which in itself isn’t a bad thing, as José Miguel Cruz, an expert on Latin American gangs at Florida International University, told the United States Institute for Peace’s Mary Speck in October.

According to Cruz, the problem with Bukele’s negotiations is that they don’t actually work to dismantle the gangs and incorporate the members into society — they just put low-level actors in prison where they can reorganize. “They also did it clandestinely, so you don’t know what arrangements were made,” he said, speaking to the lack of transparency around Bukele’s entire security strategy, called the Territorial Control Plan.

While the mass incarceration has coincided with a significant drop in violent crime and homicides, there’s evidence, particularly through the reporting of El Faro, an investigative digital outlet, that the spikes and drops in violence are the results of negotiations with the gangs, rather than the success of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, which has never been made public in full. “Nobody’s ever been able to look at it, we can’t monitor its implementation, we can’t verify its results,” Bullock said.

Human rights and democracy get in the way of security

Over the past year under the state of exception — which has been extended many times and suspends basic rights like the freedom to assemble and makes it easier to arrest people — the prison population has doubled, hence the need for the massive new prison. On Bukele’s watch, El Salvador has claimed the highest rate of incarceration in the world — around 2 percent of its adult population, according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

El Salvador’s prisons are already notoriously violent and under-resourced; previous crackdowns and mass arrests have given gang members the chance to reorganize and recruit new members. Before the crackdown, prisons were already operating at 120 percent of their capacity, according to the Associated Press.

“In the prisons themselves during the Sánchez Cerén administration they began to declare states of emergency, in which prisoners were locked down 24 hours a day, denied access to lawyers, healthcare, weren’t able to participate in the trials against them — basically spent four or five years in lockdown in prison cells,” Bullock told Vox. “And that becomes a new norm, that is aggravated by the numbers of people incarcerated, the overcrowding in prisons which in El Salvador has been one of the most overcrowded in the world.”

Bukele has bragged that detainees in the new prison will live at the facility for decades and will be isolated from the outside world. But prisoners in El Salvador rely on their families for support, even for basic items like food and underwear, as Jonathan Blitzer explained in the New Yorker last year.

The new prison will be a harsh, punitive structure, with little opportunity for growth or reform, as Rev. Andreu Oliva, rector of the Central American University in San Salvador, told the Associated Press.

“It shook me to see punishment cells where the people are going to be in total darkness, total isolation, sleeping on a concrete slab,” he said.

“In the state of exception that was put into place last year, there’s been a series of new norms that have been generated,” Bullock told Vox. “Effectively, the state of exception has transformed the criminal justice system entirely,” essentially negating the possibility of fair trials.

For one thing, there simply aren’t enough public defenders assigned to the thousands of people in pretrial detention, Bullock said. But the bigger problem, according to Bertha María Deleón, an attorney from El Salvador, is the justice system itself.

“Bukele also controls the Attorney General’s Office, the institution in charge of public criminal defense,” she told Vox. “What’s more, the attorney general says that there are no cases of arbitrary detentions. The human rights attorney does not do her job either.”

According to Deleón, prisoners must wait in detention, “in overcrowded and subhuman conditions” as their criminal trial plays out, for as long as three years. “Many have died,” she told Vox, “and they do not allow an autopsy.”

There is muted opposition to the crackdown, mostly from the families — particularly mothers — of people arbitrarily swept up in the mass arrests, Bullock said. “In some cases, those groups have begun to organize,” presenting over 4,000 habeas corpus claims to El Salvador’s Supreme Court over the past year.

Under Bukele’s rule, people might not have to worry that much about gang violence and extortion, but that doesn’t mean they live without fear. Bullock recounted a conversation with a Salvadoran friend, a taxi driver in the outskirts of the capital, about life under the state of exception.

“He said, ‘It’s great, I don’t have to pay extortion, I don’t worry about the gangs.’ I said to him, ‘Do you worry about getting detained?’ He said, ‘Every day.’”