Salvadoran President’s Secrecy about New Mega-Prison

a harbinger of corruption

Aerial view of the Terrorism Confinement Center, the mega-prison that the Salvadoran government has built to house some 40,000 gang members, and about which very little is known because the information was classified as confidential by the Nayib Bukele administration. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador

By Edgardo Ayala (IPS) 

HAVANA TIMES – The construction of a mega-prison, in which the government of El Salvador intends to imprison some 40,000 gang members, is in line with President Nayib Bukele’s tendency to hide public information on public projects, classifying them as “reserved.”

The Bukele administration thus continues to bypass accountability and transparency procedures, building a huge prison about which no one knows important details, as in the case of other government projects.

Construction work on the prison began last year, under a blanket of total secrecy.

The only information available was that the prison was being built on a 165-hectare rural piece of land, in the El Perical hamlet in Tecoluca municipality, in the central department of San Vicente. It was finished in seven months.

“There is a policy, I would dare to say public, because it is a decision of the Salvadoran State to keep everything under wraps. No matter what, there is always something that they want to keep secret.” — Wilson Sandoval

It was Bukele himself, in a televised program on Jan. 31, who formalized the start of prison operations during a tour of the facilities, accompanied by four officials.

The jail was still empty of inmates, and it was not announced when they would begin to be transferred there.

Cloak of secrecy

Despite the magnitude of the mega-project, the public does not know how much was spent on it and, above all, what criteria were taken into consideration to award the project, or which company built it, among other aspects.

Critics question Bukele about this veil of secrecy, the same one that has previously surrounded issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, or the construction of other public works.

“There is a policy, I would dare to say public, because it is a decision of the Salvadoran State to keep everything under wraps. No matter what, there is always something that they want to keep secret,” Wilson Sandoval, head of the Anticorruption Legal Advice Center of the National Foundation for Development, told IPS.

Although Salvadoran legislation allows some aspects of government programs to be classified as reserved, out of national security concerns for example, the Bukele administration keeps almost everything shrouded in secrecy.

In the case of the new prison, Sandoval said they were not demanding that sensitive or confidential information be revealed, such as the penitentiary’s internal security protocols.

He said the issue was basic aspects that should be available to the public, such as the cost of the prison and the bidding processes, since it was built with public funds.

The official secrecy surrounding the prison was announced in December 2022 and will be in force until 2024, according to the local newspaper La Prensa Gráfica.

But it is very likely that before the deadline expires, the classification will be extended, as has happened in other cases, added the expert.

The abuse of government secrecy can lead to embezzlement of funds, he said.

“I would say that more than a doubt, it is rather almost a certainty (that there may be mismanagement) because there is a basic formula in public management: discretion plus opacity will normally result in corruption,” Sandoval argued.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele listens to an explanation from an official about how the X-ray scanners operate, located at the entrance of the mega-prison that has been built in the center of the country. Bukele made the opening of the facility official on Jan. 31, during a tour of the facilities. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador

The largest prison in the Americas

The government has boasted of building the prison, which it has described as the largest in the Americas, as if it were inaugurating a public university or a state-of-the-art hospital.

“It is logical to think that the government needs prisons, because otherwise it would have nowhere to put criminals in jail,” an Uber motorcycle driver, who was driving along one of the avenues in San Salvador and said his name was Carlos, told IPS.

The mega-prison, called the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (Cecot), will hold a good part of the almost 63,000 people held under the state of emergency that the government declared in late March 2022.

The state of emergency suspended several constitutional guarantees, such as extending the term from three to 15 days for filing charges before a judge.

The war on gangs led at first to massive arrests of people suspected of belonging to the gangs or “maras”, in many cases without due process.

The maras took root in El Salvador in the early 1990s, when young Salvadorans who became part of gangs in the United States were deported to this impoverished Central American nation and brought their gang affiliation with them.

The mega-prison has several security rings, the main one being a concrete perimeter wall, 11 meters high and reinforced at the top with a 15,000-volt electrified fence. It also has 19 watchtowers.

Another security ring has been set up on the outskirts of the compound, made up of 600 soldiers and 250 police officers.

Modern X-ray equipment will fully scrutinize the body of whoever enters, to keep out prohibited objects.

Standing in front of one of the X-ray screens, Bukele told one of his officials: “You can see everything here, even the lungs, the bones.”

On Feb. 3 Amnesty International tweeted against the prison saying it would mean “continuity and escalation of the abuses” committed during the massive raids, documented by local and international organizations.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele tours one of the cell blocks of the prison built in the center of El Salvador. International human rights organizations have criticized the project, with Amnesty International saying it would mean “the continuity and escalation of the abuses” committed under the state of emergency. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador

Machiavellian style: does the end justify the means?

The new prison is the most recent move by the Bukele government, in its fight against gangs.

That fight, at least until the state of emergency, had been thrown into doubt when an investigation by the online newspaper El Faro revealed in 2020 that the Bukele administration had negotiated with the gangs to reduce the number of homicides in the country.

Bukele began his five-year term in June 2019, at the age of 38, with an air of modernity that led him to be described as the millennial president.

But after he gained a majority in Congress two years later, he took control of the Judiciary and the Attorney General’s Office, taking steady steps towards authoritarianism.

Since the government announced the state of emergency in March 2022, human rights organizations have denounced more than 4,000 cases of arbitrary detentions and abuses by soldiers and police officers emboldened by Bukele’s hard line against the gangs.

In fact, the government itself has reported that around 3,000 detainees have already been released, as their participation in the maras was not proven.

That has been read by opponents as evidence that innocent people have indeed been arrested.

But the government gives it a positive spin, saying it shows that the cases are being investigated, and that if there is no conclusive evidence, people are released.

Carlos, the Uber driver, pointed out that since the state of emergency began, the neighborhoods of San Salvador are safer, and he himself has seen this because he can now enter areas that were previously too dangerous to visit, as they were controlled by the maras.

Like him, the majority of the population of 6.7 million inhabitants of this small Central American country approve of Bukele’s measures to dismantle the gangs, as can be seen when people are asked on the streets of towns and cities, and as all opinion polls confirm.

“Only he has put on his pants against the gang members,” Carlos said.

But the impression is that the public backs the crackdown on gangs even when human rights violations are involved.

The problem of murders and insecurity in El Salvador was so severe that most people back the measures, as long as their own family members are not arbitrarily detained and subjected to police brutality.

When the murder rate peaked in 2015, El Salvador had a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, making it the most violent country in the world

At the end of 2022, three and a half years into the Bukele administration, the homicide rate had plunged to 7.8 murders per 100,000 population.

But not everyone agrees with the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means and that gangs should be fought at any cost.

Despite agreeing, in general, with Bukele´s fight against gangs, Álvaro, who draws portraits in downtown San Salvador, told IPS that it does not seem right for abuses to be committed in the persecution of gangs.

“It is obvious, what is being done (against the gangs) is a good thing, but we must remember that there are cases, perhaps not a large percentage, of people who are innocent,” he added, sitting outside the National Theater waiting for customers.

“They are people who have been victims of an unfounded complaint. This has happened and from what I see it will continue to happen,” he said.

“The key is how to make legal and police work more efficient, without detaining everyone who is reported,” he argued.

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