The Washington Post
The scale of El Salvador’s new prison is difficult to comprehend
Earlier this month, Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, unveiled his latest infrastructure project: a massive, “first-world” jail that could well become the largest penitentiary in the world, with an alleged capacity to hold 40,000 inmates. This weekend, he announced the transfer of the first 2,000 prisoners to the new facility.
“A common-sense project,” Bukele called it. The reality is that the scale of the project defies common sense — and easy comprehension. And the social implications of the endeavor are no less striking. The citizens of El Salvador have tacitly accepted Bukele’s unprecedented crackdown on crime, and, for the time anyway, are ignoring its broader ramifications.
The unveiling of the prison came in typical Bukelian fashion. He took over the country’s airwaves to share a 35-minute video of himself touring the facilities (it was soon posted on his popular Twitter feed, the presidency’s de facto press office). He can be seen arriving at the jail in a caravan of black SUVS. “Welcome to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism, a key part in our battle against the gangs,” Osiris Luna Meza, director of El Salvador’s penitentiary system, said.
Bukele is then shown X-ray machines, surveillance towers and a fully staffed security perimeter. A “riot intervention squad,” armed to the teeth, salutes him. The tour then goes to the cells, meant to hold groups of “terrorists,” and the extreme solitary confinement area, where inmates will be kept completely in the dark — a widely condemned practice.
“They won’t see any daylight, Mr. President,” Luna Meza, whom the U.S. government has placed on a list of officials suspected of corruption in El Salvador, proudly told Bukele.
Spanning about 410 acres in an isolated region of El Salvador, the jail is the latest example of Bukele’s punitive state. And it is slated to become the largest, and most overcrowded, prison in the world.
The only images available come from the government itself. Since only a handful of foreign journalists have been granted access and given carefully arranged tours, claims of the jail’s readiness, layout and operation have not been independently verified.
The project’s finances have also been kept secret. “Contracts were granted capriciously,” reporter Jaime Quintanilla, who covers Bukele’s infrastructure projects, told me. “Nuevas Ideas [Bukele’s party, which controls Congress] passed legislation that allows them to skip basic accountability.” For now, the ministry in charge of such projects has sealed any information on the construction of the country’s jails. There is no official information as to which companies were granted the likely lucrative contracts to build it, although two of Bukele’s preferred contractors were apparently favored. “No one knows how it was all financed,” journalist Óscar Martínez, who runs the independent newspaper El Faro, told me. “If, in terms of security, this is similar to a dictatorship, in terms of public spending, this is already a dictatorship.”
The prison is no white elephant, however. It is a necessity born of Bukele’s policies. Since March of last year, his government has been prosecuting a war on the country’s infamous gangs. To do so, Bukele declared a state of emergency, which has since seemingly become permanent.
At least 60,000 Salvadorans have been imprisoned as a result of the crackdown, including hundreds of minors, often in what a recent joint report by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal calls “indiscriminate raids.” The report paints a chilling portrait of authorities run amok, arresting Salvadorans with “no apparent connections to gangs’ abusive activity,” sometimes acting merely on “appearance or social background.” As of November, 90 detainees had died in custody, according to the government’s own numbers.
Even before the crackdown, El Salvador had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the world. After the crackdown, the country might extend its lead in this grim statistic.
Incarceration figures in El Salvador have always been difficult to verify. We have only official figures, which have not been updated for the past year. Martínez, however, estimates the total number of prisoners in custody today to be around 100,000 people, a staggering figure for a country of 6.5 million.
Nevertheless, the arrests have succeeded in bringing down crime. According to official statistics, homicides decreased by more than a factor of 10 since 2015. Much of that decline cannot be attributed to the crackdown, even if homicides bottomed out at a remarkable low last year — a statistic Bukele frequently trumpets.
But the real sea change is on the ground, where citizens report that extortion has all but disappeared. Salvadorans have gained a palpable sense of security in their everyday lives at the expense of due process, democracy and transparency. Most seem to be fine with the trade-off. Bukele himself is immensely popular, as is the state of emergency he has declared. Protests against him have fizzled.
That said, nothing guarantees the long-term success of this extravagantly punitive approach. Systemic opacity has made it impossible for independent journalists to verify what it will cost Bukele to fund his sprawling security apparatus. Maintaining an indefinite state of emergency and a high incarceration rate won’t come cheap, and the country’s economy is not healthy.
He could also be playing with fire by creating such a huge police state. Security forces have a nasty habit of becoming powerful interest groups of their own, and could even attempt to seize power if their demands are not met.
And then there are the prisoners themselves. Leaving aside the very real human rights implications, Bukele’s strategy carries potentially big downside risks. Even if he manages to keep tens of thousands of “terrorists” behind bars, cut off from the world outside, gangs tend to thrive in jail. (In fact, some of El Salvador’s most notorious gangs grew inside the United States’ prison system.) Who is to say that these men, who are now being denied their rights and left to rot in questionable conditions, won’t eventually become a bigger threat? And after all, they cannot be detained indefinitely.
Salvadorans may yet come to regret their Faustian bargain.