Home News El Salvador’s president is flaunting a new mega prison. Activists are worried.

El Salvador’s president is flaunting a new mega prison. Activists are worried.


Thousands of detainees were transferred to El Salvador’s new mega prison Friday, drawing suspicion from some human rights advocates who noted that the theatrical opening of what may become the world’s largest penitentiary came shortly after U.S. federal attorneys accused government officials of cutting deals with gang leaders.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele spent the weekend sharing images of inmates being moved into the mega prison, running while bent over, wearing white shorts, their feet and chests bare. The video incorporates ominous music and the inmate’s clinking chains.

“They’re not scary anymore, are they?” said Bukele via Twitter on Saturday. Criminals, he added, stop causing fear once they lose the protection of “the corrupt politicians and international organizations that finance and defend them.”

The mega prison can house up to 40,000 prisoners, Bukele said last year. It’s officially called the “Center for the Confinement of Terrorism” and was unveiled earlier this month. El Salvador’s crackdown on crime has been met with allegations of indiscriminate arrests and police abuses.

“This new mega prison is a symbol of Bukele’s mad security policies,” Juan Pappier, the acting deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post on Sunday.

Pappier said Bukele’s timing to transfer the detainees to the mega prison was suspect. It comes after the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment on Thursday against alleged MS-13 gang leaders that accuses senior Salvadoran officials of negotiating with criminal groups to curb violence.

“There’s every reason to suspect the timing of the prison transfer was all about controlling the narrative and presenting an ‘iron fist’ interpretation of Bukele that fails to encapsulate the whole picture,” Pappier said.

After Bukele won the presidency in February 2019, gangs made agreements with the government to reduce the number of public murders, “which politically benefited the government of El Salvador,” the U.S. Justice Department said in the indictment. It appeared as if the murder rate was dropping, “when in fact, MS-13 leaders continued to authorize murders where the victims’ bodies were buried or otherwise hidden.”

In exchange, the gangs were promised less restrictive prison conditions, early release of some leaders and refusals to extradite prisoners to the United States, the indictment added.

The United States has accused Bukele’s government of negotiating with the country’s gangs before, a tactic other Salvadoran presidents also have pursued. Bukele has denied the allegations and instead promised “a war on gangs.”

After a spike in homicides last year when at least 92 people were killed over four days, according to Human Rights Watch, Bukele declared a state of emergency across the country. This was followed by mass arrests of suspected gang members. Even before the arrests began, El Salvador had one of the highest rates of incarceration.

At least 60,000 alleged gang members have been arrested in the past year. The number includes hundreds of children who were placed in youth detention facilities, according to Amnesty International. Human rights advocates have said El Salvador has experienced widespread human rights violations since the state of emergency began.

“Security forces have detained hundreds of Salvadorans with no connection to gangs, held them incommunicado, tortured some of them in prison, and subjected detainees to Kafkian legal proceedings that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to defend themselves,” Pappier said.

Osiris Luna Meza, director of El Salvador’s penitentiary system, said during a video tour of the mega prison earlier this month that there are factories inside where the inmates will be made to work.

The mega prison is a “key piece in the war against the gangs,” said Meza during the tour, which showed pitch-dark isolation cells that were described as one of its most necessary parts by the prison official.

“This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, mixed up, unable to do any more harm to the population,” Bukele said Friday.

The mega prison has more than twice the capacity of Rikers Island. However, despite being built across 165 hectares in an isolated part of the country, the prison’s proposed inmate density is almost three times as high as Rikers Island, according to data gathered by The Post.

“While the prison is likely to help maintain the president’s very high popularity, packing tens of thousands of detainees is unlikely to bring security for Salvadorans in a sustainable manner,” Pappier said.

Less than a month ago, a leaked database from El Salvador’s Ministry of Public Safety exposed widespread due process violations, severe prison overcrowding and deaths in police custody, reported Human Rights Watch and the human rights group Cristosal.

Grounds for what Human Rights Watch called “indiscriminate arrests” included having tattoos, living in neighborhoods that have gangs and looking like criminals, the group said in report released in December.

Despite the mass arrests and deaths, Bukele remains popular in the country. Human Rights Watch argues that it is difficult to independently verify how much crime in the country has truly reduced.