Crime & Justice

Colombia’s Petro: Salvadoran prison for gang members is ‘concentration camp’

Bogota, Mar 1 (EFE).- Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Wednesday said the new maximum-security prison in El Salvador where 2,000 accused gang members were transferred last week is in fact a “concentration camp.”

“You can see the terrible photos in the media … of the concentration camp in El Salvador, full of thousands and thousands of incarcerated young people. It’s chilling,” Petro said during the inauguration of a university expansion project in Bogota.

The images of the shirtless, shackled, heavily tattooed inmates, who are seen sitting on the floor bent over and stacked closely together, have been widely published in media outlets worldwide and sparked harsh criticism from human rights groups.

“I think there are people who undoubtedly like that, seeing young people inside prisons, and they think that’s what security is. And it makes (politicians’) popularity soar, no doubt,” the leftist president said.

On Wednesday morning, Petro tweeted a survey conducted by Costa Rican polling firm CID Gallup showing the approval ratings of various public figures in Latin America. While his own rating was a relatively high 57 percent, hard-line Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele led the list with 92 percent approval.

Bukele’s war on crime has sent his popularity soaring, with Salvadorans seeing the president’s controversial measures, including the massive new prison – known as the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism and located more than 75 kilometers (47 miles) outside San Salvador – as necessary to eradicate gang violence and extortion rackets.

But Petro said Wednesday there are humane means for achieving the same end.

“The president of El Salvador feels proud because he reduced the homicide rate by, according to him, subduing the gangs, (whose members) are now in those prisons that, in my opinion, are something out of Dante,” Petro said Wednesday.

The Colombian president added that he had the same success in bringing down violent crime and homicide rates during his 2012-2015 tenure as mayor of Bogota.

“Not with prisons though, but rather with universities, colleges, spaces for dialogue, spaces where poor people cease to be poor.”

The prison outside San Salvador was opened nearly a year into a state of emergency imposed in March 2022 with the ostensible purpose of battling Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and other gangs.

Bukele said the government needed special powers to deal with the gangs and since then, his right-wing allies in the assembly have voted every month to renew the state of exception.

That state of emergency entails the suspension of constitutional guarantees and allows police to detain people without warrants and in the absence of grounds that would stand up to judicial scrutiny.

More than 64,000 people with gang connections have been arrested, according to the government, which says 3,300 suspects were subsequently released.

But families of many of those still in custody say their loved ones were law-abiding citizens.

Human rights organizations and the office of the national ombud have received nearly 8,000 complaints about arbitrary arrest and dozens of detainees have died.

In early February, Amnesty International said the new prison would mean “continuity and escalation of the abuses” committed under the state of emergency.

A succession of governments has struggled to subdue MS-13 and the other gangs, which originated in Southern California among the children of Salvadorans fleeing the country’s 1980-1992 civil war.

Convicted gang members deported back to their homeland from the United States established the gangs on Salvadoran soil, where the number of members is currently estimated at around 70,000. EFE


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