The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, inaugurated the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT) earlier this year. This mega-prison will detain up to 40,000 inmates, all alleged members of the maras (gangs), with the aim, according to the Salvadoran government, of winning the war against crime.
It was built in only seven months and the real cost of the installation is still unknown. Located in an isolated rural area, it is equipped with the latest advances in technology.
The centre has dining halls, leisure rooms, a gymnasium and ping-pong tables, but only for the guards’ use. For inmates, there are workshop areas for labour tasks. There are also rooms for virtual court hearings, so that inmates do not have to leave the prison. Likewise, there are dark, windowless punishment cells for punishing bad behaviour.
The prison was built with reinforced walls, cells with steel bars on the windows, security cameras, full-body scanners for those entering, seven watchtowers and an 11-meter-high, 2.1-kilometre electrified perimeter wall, which will be guarded day and night by some 600 soldiers and 250 police officers.
The prison was presented as the largest in the Americas, with emphasis put on it being one of the great challenges achieved by the Salvadoran government. In doing so, President Bukele continues his war against the maras, strongly criticized by human rights organisations, which accuse the government of using torture, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances in the fight against these criminal organisations and has so far left at least 175 people dead in 11 months.
In parallel, the National Civil Police published its statistics from January 2023 with an annual rate of less than 2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which would make El Salvador the country with the lowest homicide rate in the whole of the Americas. It is worth mentioning that during the state of emergency, which began almost a year ago, more than 60,000 alleged gang members have been arrested.
These government and police actions have led to strong protests from human rights organisations and groups. A report released in late January by the Human Rights Watch explains that large-scale abuse has been committed, including prison overcrowding, lack of guarantees, mass arrests and deaths in police custody.
Among the 60,000 detainees are hundreds of minors who have been prosecuted for broadly defined crimes that violate basic due process guarantees and undermine the justice prospects for victims of gang violence.
One of the critical voices of this offensive against the gangs, the Jesuit rector of the Central American University, Andreu Oliva, considers that with the construction of the new prison the Government is not committed to the rehabilitation of the inmates.
However, Nayib Bukele’s government looks down on human rights organisations and the media, which he accuses of defending gang members.