Crime & Justice

El Salvador builds largest prison in the Americas

By Sara Acosta

San Salvador, Feb 3 (EFE).- The Salvadoran government is poised to open the largest prison in the Western Hemisphere, designed to hold as many as 40,000 gang members incommunicado.

Known officially as the Center for Terrorism Confinement, the facility was built on a parcel of 165.2 hectares (407,901 acres) in a rural area more than 75 km (47 mi) from San Salvador.

The structure itself occupies 23.1 hectares in the center of that expanse, whose perimeter is secured by a large contingent of soldiers, police and prison guards, as EFE saw during a media tour.

The complex is equipped with eight electric substations, two water wells, a sewage-treatment plant and 5 km (3 mi) of access roads.

Authorities set out “to guarantee a space far from urban areas,” Public Works Minister Romeo Rodriguez said, noting that other Salvadoran prisons sit alongside schools, hospitals and residential buildings.

The prison will hold “people who have done damage and caused grief for Salvadoran families,” he said.

Everyone who enters the facility – including the guards and other staff – must pass through a body scanner to verify that he or she is not carrying a weapon or other contraband.

“Normally, telephones, televisions and even prostitutes entered the prisons,” Rodriguez said. “We have tried to guarantee that orders to murder Salvadorans are no longer given from inside the prisons.”

The penitentiary is surrounded by four concentric walls, the first of which stands 11 m (36 ft) tall and is “totally electrified,” the public works minister said.

And the 19 watchtowers are complemented by thermal surveillance cameras that detect movement.

As the cells have toilets and large water basins for washing, inmates will be allowed out only for hearings and to go to the prison infirmary.

“No yards have been built, nor recreation area for the inmates, nor conjugal spaces,” Rodriguez said.

The backdrop to the controversial project is a state of emergency imposed in March 2022 with the ostensible purpose of battling Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS13, and other gangs.

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

The 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.

Nearly 63,000 people with gang connections have been arrested, according to the government, but families of many detainees say that their loved ones were law-abiding citizens.

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 sa/dr

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