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Bukele intensifies war on gangs: 2,000 more inmates transferred to ‘biggest prison in all America’

The prison transfer came the same day El Salvador’s congress voted to approve yet another extension of emergency rules that allow police to round up suspected members of street gangs

Suspected gang members transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, El Salvador.
David Marcial Pérez

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Another 2,000 gang suspects have been transferred to a maximum security prison in El Salvador as the government intensifies its controversial crackdown on gang violence.

The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, announced the news on Wednesday with a slickly produced video posted on social media. It showed prisoners forced to run barefoot and handcuffed down stairways and over bare ground, clad only in regulation white shorts. They were then forced to sit with their legs locked in closely clumped groups in cells. The prison, located 45 miles southeast of San Salvador, was opened just over a month ago. When opening the facility, Bukele described it as “the biggest prison in all of the Americas.”

The prison transfer came the same day El Salvador’s congress voted to approve yet another extension of emergency rules that allow police to round up suspected members of street gangs. Nearly a year has passed since the state of emergency was first decreed on March 27, 2022, and since then 65,000 people have been detained, according to the government.

But the crackdown on gangs has been widely criticized by human rights groups, who accuse the government of using torture, arbitrary arrest and forced disappearances in its war against the 18th Street gang (Mara Barrio 18) and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), the two main criminal groups in El Salvador. The state of emergency has allowed detentions without trial, and lowered the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 12 years of age. Detained gang suspects have no contact with the outside world, including their lawyers and family. Trials are held virtually without any witnesses. And the process is mired by irregularities and lack of transparency.

According to human rights organizations in El Salvador, only one third of detainees have proven links to gangs: the rest are the victims of a social cleansing campaign to win political points ahead of next year’s election. It’s a strategy that’s working for the president, who has the highest approval ratings of a president since the country’s return to democracy in the early 1990s.

Military police with riot shields escort suspected gang members.
Military police with riot shields escort suspected gang members.Gobierno de El Salvador (EFE)

International organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also denounced “large-scale abuses” inside El Salvador’s prisons. According to an HRW investigation, which had access to an official database, 32 people died in custody between March and August 2022. In a press release, HRW said the findings indicate “that thousands of people, including hundreds of children, have been arrested and charged with broadly defined crimes that violate detainees’ basic due process guarantees.”

The government, for its part, has provided little information about the crackdown beyond the bombastic social media messages posted by Bukele. Instead, it boasts that its actions have led to a historical reduction in crime.

Bukele’s authoritarian drift is not limited to the crackdown on gangs. After his landslide win in May 2021, the president removed the five titular magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and the four substitutes, as well as the attorney general, all in violation of constitutional norms. The United States was quick to condemn the actions, sparking sharp rebuke from Bukele, who has tried to use the row to further his campaign. Another problem in El Salvador is the attacks on human rights organizations, the press and the difficulty of accessing information of public interest.

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