In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, images of thousands of gang members stacked together by the government of El Salvador were broadcast around the world.
The country continues to be entrenched in its own war against gang members, especially those from the Mara Salvatrucha and 18 gangs. According to Osiris Luna, Deputy Minister of Security and the Director of Prisons, the State’s decision to integrate and confine members of the different criminal structures to the same cells is intended to create a shock effect among the gangs.
For two decades, incumbent governments have resorted to the prisons in an effort to give the appearance of winning the battle against gang violence. Let’s not forget that, according to official estimates, there are an estimated 60,000 active gang members in a country of fewer than 7 million people.
Furthermore, in 2018, the prisons reported that 44% of the prison population were understood to belong to a gang, accounting for about 17,400 of the 39,300 people being held in the country’s jails.
Previously, the penitentiary system segregated the members of rival gangs, assigning exclusive prisons to each group.
The initiative, seen by the gangs as a victory over the system, was successful in curtailing the number of riots and murders occurring inside prisons. However, it also served to consolidate the power and internal organisation of the criminal structures.
In 2016, the previous government took the first steps towards changing the system, but under the Bukele Administration, the reforms have been accelerated.
The potential consequences of the new prison policies are unpredictable. But it should also be understood that gangs like Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 are formed by a conglomerate of programs and cliques with operational autonomy and, although a general command does exist, they do not always follow the same orders. In fact, there have been bloody disputes between members of the same gang. Nowadays, in El Salvador, talking about the MS-13 gang as a single homogeneous entity is somewhat misleading.
The other big gang, known as Barrio 18, also suffered internal conflicts in the middle of the last decade and split into two halves: the Sureños and the Revolucionarios.
Other smaller gangs include La Mirada, Locos 13 and Mao-Mao, which currently have about 300 of their active members imprisoned.
Another front to highlight is the so-called retirees; gang members who have left MS-13 or 18, mainly due to internal conflicts.
Although they are no longer considered to be gang members, there are around 3,000 of them in El Salvador’s prisons. And in 2004, they were allocated an exclusive prison facility in the city of Sonsonate.