A group of 2,000 suspected gang members were moved this past Friday to El Salvador’s new 40,000 person capacity prison – now the largest prison in the Americas. This group is the first of many to come under the Bukele government’s highly controversial crackdown on gangs. Photos and videos from the jail shared by the BBC, Reuters and The Guardian show the thousands of tattooed men with their heads shaved, hands and ankles shackled, shoeless, wearing nothing except the same white shorts piled against each other in rows waiting to be assigned to individual cells. The “mega prison” is made up of eight buildings, each with 32 cells which are only about 100 square meters and meant to hold more than 100 prisoners each, says the BBC. Each cell additionally only has a total of two sinks and two toilets. According to Reuters, major human rights abuse concerns have been raised by humanitarian groups over suspicion of countless innocent prisoners also being incarcerated by these sweeping policies as well as inhumane conditions and the treatment of prisoners.
Announcing the news, President Bukele published the following post on Twitter, stating: “This will be their new home, where they won’t be able to do any more harm to the population”. Bukele, El Salvador’s populist leader, has made the crackdown on gangs a centre point to his presidency. According to The Guardian, even hardline critics of Bukele’s measures have conceded that they have “produced ‘extraordinary change’ for Salvadorans, albeit at a huge cost for democracy and human rights”. Gangs have in fact largely disappeared in some towns previously terrorized by violent crime. However, countless innocent people have also been swept up by the crackdown, sometimes even for merely resembling criminals or through anonymous tip-offs. According to the BBC, such prisoners have been subjected to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” and more than 100 have died behind bars, says The Guardian.
The measures taken by Bukele are sweeping and despite their apparent effectiveness, the results are surface level. By weeding out every suspected gang member or criminal, the government has appeared to cease gang activity, but whether this peace will last remains uncertain. Gang organizations are notorious for their resilience, even after successfully removing their senior or key figures. Power vacuums will be left in the areas formerly operated by gangs and it is impossible to determine whether other alternative organizations will take their place. Additionally, the longevity and logistics of keeping such a high number of individuals incarcerated is unrealistic, not to mention the financial cost entailed. Human rights abuses will be inevitable.
Since last year when the initial “state of exception” was passed by El Salvador’s congress, under Bukele’s influence, more than 64,000 people have been arrested, flooding the country’s already overcrowded prison system. This was part of a state of emergency declared by Bukele following a spike in murders related to gang violence – which has been a major problem in El Salvador for years. Over one weekend prior to the ‘state of exception’ being implemented, 70 people were killed. The policy suspended constitutional rights including the need for an arrest warrant, private communications can be accessed by the government and detainees have lost the right to a lawyer. Overall, according to the BBC, these measures have been popular with many Salvadorans. However, for those caught up in the ruthless policy, the wrongfully arrested, for instance, it has been a nightmare.
Gang violence in El Salvador is a serious issue which cannot be ignored. However, the mass incarceration of thousands of individuals is a dangerous and arguably reckless solution. The implications of so many behind bars will be felt for generations in El Salvador and the effectiveness of the policy will be put to the test in the coming years, if not already in the months to follow. More creative solutions must be found for gang violence. The first priority is putting international pressure on the Salvadoran government to reform their prison system to address the inhuman conditions as well as to repeal the unjust revocation of constitutional rights resulting in countless wrongful arrests. Every individual arrested under this policy deserves the right to a lawyer and a just trial regardless of their guilt. Additionally, for those found guilty of less severe crime, there should be rehabilitation opportunities for them to reintegrate back into society after serving fair sentences. Gang violence must be addressed in El Salvador but it can not be done at the cost of human rights.
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