TECOLUCA, El Salvador (AP) – When El Salvador began mass arrests of people suspected of having gang ties last year, President Nayib Bukele ordered the construction of the largest prison in Latin America.
Bukele this week launched the completed project, a sprawling campus 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of the capital that could eventually house 40,000 prisoners.
Dubbed the Terrorism Detention Center, the prison will hold many of the more than 62,000 people arrested by authorities since the government suspended some constitutional rights and launched an all-out offensive against gangs last March.
The effort enjoys widespread support in El Salvador, but has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations and some foreign governments for lack of due process and other abuses.
Bukele put it simply in a tweet on Thursday: “El Salvador has managed to go from being the most dangerous country in the world to being the safest country in the Americas. How did we do it? By putting criminals in jail. Is there room? Now there is.”
It’s been a few years since El Salvador held that unenviable distinction—there were 6,656 murders in 2015—but the country lowered that total to 3,495 murders last year, the lowest number in decades. The government does not include in that figure about 120 killings of alleged gang members by authorities.
The last time the government provided the prison population, it was almost 36,000 in April 2021. The country’s 29 prisons were then at 120% of capacity. In the past 10 months, the government has almost tripled the population.
During a tour of the new prison Thursday night, Public Works Minister Romeo Rodríguez said each cell can hold more than 100 inmates. The government has not announced when it will start transferring prisoners.
Critics of Bukele’s strong-arm tactics say that in the long run, El Salvador will not be able to arrest and jail itself in order to get out of its security problems.
“With this prison, Nayib Bukele’s administration in El Salvador shows that it has no clear plans to prevent crime,” tweeted Carolina Jimenez, president of WOLA, a non-governmental organization focused on Latin America. “His main choice is a permanent state of ‘exception’ in which they violate human rights.”
The Rev. Andreu Oliva, rector of the Jesuit-founded Central American University in San Salvador, said the focus on punishment was troubling.
“It shook me to see the punishment cells where people would be in total darkness, total isolation, sleeping on a concrete slab,” he said. With no library or facilities for education or training, he saw little to help inmates who wanted to leave a life of crime.
Without talking about rehabilitation, critics like Oliva question what awaits inmates when they are released other than returning to gangs.
Bukele dismissed critics as defenders of gangsters. His popular support remains high. Days go by without a murder. Neighborhoods that spent years under the complete control of gangs are attracting some of the residents who fled from them.
Month after month, El Salvador’s congress is renewing the state of emergency imposed in late March after gangsters killed 62 people in one day. The right to association, the right to information about the reasons for the arrest and access to a lawyer remain suspended.
There is little sympathy for the gang members. For years they terrorized parts of the territory of El Salvador, extorting and killing at will.
In 2015, the Supreme Court declared Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 terrorist groups.
Alemán reported from San Salvador, El Salvador.