MS Risk Blog

El Salvador: a mega-prison for a prolonged state of emergency

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The state of emergency decreed on 27 March 2022 by President Nayib Bukele was once again renewed without difficulty by the authorities on 16 March, and while the 40,000-seat mega-prison, opened to cope with the constant influx of suspects, received its first prisoners on 24 February, raising concerns on the part of observers and NGOs as to the regime’s respect for human rights, and this in spite of convincing results in the fight against crime and gangs in the country. It is highly likely that the state of emergency will be renewed again in the near future, as the opposition to this radical measure seems to be inaudible.

On 26 March 2022, the country experienced an impressive wave of violence, police recording 62 homicides on that day alone. The murders, attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, one of the most dangerous gangs in El Salvador along with its rival Barrio-18, prompted President Bukele’s government to take a radical and equally dramatic step the next day: declare a state of emergency. Renewable if necessary, it allows the arrest and detention of suspects without warrants. According to the Salvadoran Constitution, a state of emergency can be declared “in case of war, invasion of the territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic or other general calamity, or serious disturbance of public order”. This measure has since led to the arrest of nearly 66 000 suspects, when the number of MS-13 and Barrio 18 members is estimated by the government to be between 76 000 or 118 000 by some experts. Only 5% of inmates detained under the state of emergency have been released. As the Minister of Justice and Security, Héctor Gustavo Villatoro, announced on 15 February, the state of emergency to combat gangs will continue until all criminals are arrested, which suggests that this supposedly exceptional measure will last.

To cope with the influx of inmates, and while El Salvador’s prisons are already stretched beyond their capacity, the authorities opened on 31 January a 40 000-capacity Terrorism Confinement Center (TCC), better known in the media as a mega-prison, guarded by nearly 600 soldiers and 250 police. Less than a month later, on 24 February, the prison received its first 2 000 inmates. The TCC was quickly denounced by human rights NGOs and by some South American government leaders, including Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who did not hesitate to compare it to a concentration camp. A large majority of the 66 000 suspects arrested, 57 000 are still awaiting trial by the judicial authorities, which makes NGOs fear that cases will not be properly handled by Justice. In addition to arbitrary arrests, deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding in prisons, abuse and torture are reported, according to some testimonies. The UN reported at least 90 deaths since the measure came into force a year ago, and are concerned about the authorities’ lack of transparency in investigations. Beyond these exceptional measures, the government does not seem to be looking for long-term solutions other than lifting the rights of the suspected and arbitrary arrests. No plan to reduce social inequalities or fight corruption has been proposed. Worse, the government is cracking down on the press, while some media such as El Faro and Revista Factum, which have taken a stand against corruption, were targeted by the government on 15 February, accusing them of false reporting or money laundering. Others claim that the authorities use Pegasus spyware to monitor opponents and journalists, or paid trolls to attack reputations, although both have yet to be proven. These events could suggest that the regime is sinking into authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, the state of emergency is proving popular with the population, which is 95% in favor of it according to a poll in March, and effective since on 10 March the police recorded the 319th day without murders. While the homicide rate per 100 000 inhabitants in 2021 was 18.1%, or 1 147 murders over the year, one of the highest in the world outside war zone, in 2022 it was 7.8% for 495 murders over the year, and it is estimated at 2.6% in 2023, with 40 homicides between January and March. These results seem to give a free hand to President Bukele’s regime, which does not foresee an end to the state of emergency in the coming months.