The new prison in El Salvador where 40,000 criminals from the “maras” will be detained is an “essential element” in the war declared ten months ago against these criminal gangs which sow terror in the north of Central America, the president assured Wednesday. Nayib Bukele.
Despite criticism from human rights NGOs for the abuses committed, the “war on crime” has won President Bukele overwhelming popularity.
“Yesterday (Tuesday) we inaugurated the Center for the Containment of Terrorism” (CECOT), a “gigantic work carried out in just seven months and which is moreover an essential element for the total victory in the war against gangs”, s congratulated the Salvadoran head of state on his Twitter account.
Nayib Bukele had initially announced that this giant jail should be finished in September.
The gigantic prison, built in a remote area 74 kilometers southeast of the capital San Salvador, is presented by the authorities as “the largest in all of America”. A national television channel showed the head of state inspecting the penitentiary on Tuesday evening.
Equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, the “maximum security” prison was built for an undisclosed budget as part of the exceptional regime in force since the end of March 2022 to fight against the “maras”.
The penitentiary, surrounded by an electrified wall 11 meters high over more than two kilometers with seven watchtowers, has a dozen buildings built on 23 of the 166 hectares it occupies, explained the Minister of Public Works Romeo Rodríguez.
The walls are made of reinforced concrete and the windows of the cells are fitted with steel bars, while cameras and body scanners complete the security of the penitentiary which will be guarded day and night by 600 soldiers and 250 police officers. Electronic equipment will block cell phone signals, preventing communication from prisoners.
Prison guards armed with pistols and assault rifles must maintain order in the prison itself.
“All the terrorists who orchestrated the mourning and suffering of the Salvadoran people will serve their sentences in CECOT (subject to) the most severe regime”, welcomed the Deputy Minister of Justice and Public Security Osiris Luna .
Inmates will have to work to “repair some of the harm they have caused to society”, he added.
President Bukele denounced the laxity of previous governments which, he assured, allowed gangsters to be detained with “prostitutes, PlayStations, cell phones, computers”.
Permanently in cell
An official explained to the Salvadoran president during the visit that the detainees will be permanently locked up in their cells, whose fully screened doors will allow them to be monitored. According to the images shown by television, the six by four meter cells are furnished with three metal beds, each with three superimposed berths, and are equipped with two sinks and two toilets.
Bad behavior by detainees may be punished by confinement in cells that are completely closed and plunged into darkness.
The penitentiary has many canteens, rest rooms, sports halls and ping-pong tables… for the exclusive use of the guards.
As any transfer to a court will be prohibited, rooms are provided for hearings by videoconference.
The government has not indicated when the penitentiary will receive its first inmates. For the moment, nearly 63,000 alleged “mareros” have been arrested under the exceptional regime which authorizes arrests without a judicial warrant, adopted and regularly renewed by parliament since a wave of 87 assassinations in just three days at the end of March 2022.
“Shame for the country”
The director of El Salvador’s Human Rights Commission, Miguel Montenegro, calls the penitentiary “a disgrace for the country”: “The government boasts of having the largest prison in Latin America, which is not not a reason for pride when it involves risks of overcrowding and violence”.
For his part, Andreu Oliva, the rector of the Central American University (Jesuit) pleads for a work of “rehabilitation” of the prisoners, because, he says, “they deserve a second chance”. “The function of the penitentiary system is to change people,” insists the academic.
Last week the rights organization Humans Rights Watch denounced “extreme overcrowding” in the twenty or so detention centers in El Salvador, which theoretically total 30,000 places, without the new penitentiary.