Is El Salvador’s ‘mega prison gang crackdown’ a good solution?
- The first group of 2,000 suspected gang members in El Salvador were moved to the newly completed Terrorism Confinement Center. President Nayib Bukele tweeted, “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population.”
- On February 1, 2023, the authorities in El Salvador opened one of Latin America’s largest prisons, Terrorism Confinement Center, with a capacity for 40,000 in order to “crackdown on criminal gangs.” Each of its eight buildings has 32 cells of 100 square meters with two sinks and toilets per cell to hold more than 100 prisoners.
- Human rights organizations have critiqued the “mega prison” as a serious human rights violation citing “mass arbitrary detention, torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees, deaths in custody, and abuse-ridden prosecutions.”
- According to World Prison Brief, El Salvador’s prison population total was 39,538 which was 135.7% of official capacity, on January 1, 2022.
While El Salvador is following an authoritarian path, and the images of thousands of prisoners can be shocking, its mega prison gang crackdown has become the most effective way to solve its crime crisis, especially when it comes to fighting the Mara Salvatrucha (aka MS-13)—one of the most brutal and violent criminal organizations not only in Latin America but also in the Western Hemisphere.
So far, El Salvador’s mega prison gang crackdown has been an unquestionable success since it has already shown results that were never seen in the fight against criminal groups in the country. In fact, official statistics show that murders in the Central American nation fell nearly 57% last year, with authorities registering a total of 496 homicides, down from 1,147 the year before.
Another reason this has been an effective solution is that it has a symbolic value that sends a message to the gangs and has a dissuasive effect among future criminals. After all, the prison has solid security that has been reducing violence inside and outside the prison thanks to a “closed system” where gang leaders are fully isolated and cannot communicate with other inmates. The effectiveness shown by these security measures is quite different from the previous methods applied by previous governments, which ended up being a complete failure and made the problem even worse.
While it’s true that many nations wouldn’t accept this hardline measure because of its implications, it has been such an effective solution for El Salvador that the Central American country is finally solving its crime crisis, prioritizing the safety of its citizens over the comfort and freedom of criminals and murderers.
Despite the applause for the government-produced footage of inmates at the new prison in Tecoluca, the ‘mega prison’ may not be the best approach to win the war against gang crimes.
First, El Salvador’s history is riddled with instances proving tough-on-crime measures are ineffective. La Mano Dura—or Iron Fist—is one example. In addition to prison overcrowding, it enabled gang leaders to recruit new members. The 2022–23 Salvadoran gang crackdown may be equally inefficient in the long run, especially if there’s truth in allegations of the government cutting deals with gang leaders to reduce homicides.
Human rights violations are also expected within the mega prison’s walls. Human rights organizations have been quite vocal seeing what cameras captured and fear the worse with shutters closed.
Life in El Salvador’s prisons is so brutal that the Bukele administration rejects media outlets’ requests to visit them. Inmates are packed into unhygienic spaces without receiving proper rations. Death also looms near as inmates succumb to unattended injuries caused by torture in detention, untreated chronic illness, aggressive inmates, or unsanitary conditions.
Finally, the mega prison will deliver harsh punishment and not provide rehabilitation opportunities within its walls. Therefore, the chances of gang members returning to a life of crime are high—if they survive prison conditions. With all this in mind, it would have been better for officials to invest this prison's yet-to-be-revealed cost in initiatives that address the root cause of crime.