TECOLUCA, El Salvador (AP) — With tattoo-covered faces, and wearing white shirts and shorts, gang members captured during El Salvador’s state of exception are gradually filling the country’s new mega prison.
Unveiled earlier this year, the prison 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of the capital now holds some 12,000 accused or convicted gang members, barely a quarter of its 40,000 capacity.
Prisoners here do not receive visits. There are no programs preparing them for reinsertion into society after their sentences, no workshops or educational programs.
The exceptions are occasional motivational talks from prisoners who have gained a level of trust from prison officials. Prisoners sit in rows in the corridor outside their cells for the talks or are led through exercise regimens under the supervision of guards. They are never allowed outside.
President Nayib Bukele ordered its construction when El Salvador began making massive arrests early last year in response to a surge in gang violence. Since then, more than 72,000 people have been arrested for being alleged gang members or affiliates.
Human rights organizations have said that thousands have been unjustly detained without due process and dozens have died in prisons.
When Bukele unveiled the Terrorism Confinement Center in February, he tweeted: “El Salvador has managed to go from being the world’s most dangerous country, to the safest country in the Americas. How did we do it? By putting criminals in jail. Is there space? There is now.” His justice minister said later those imprisoned there would never return to communities.
The prison’s massive scale and lack of any sort of rehabilitation have been criticized by human rights organizations.
Bukele’s security policies are widely popular among Salvadorans. Many neighborhoods are enjoying life out from under the oppressive control of gangs for the first time in years.
Walking through one of the prison’s eight sprawling pavilions Thursday, some prisoners acknowledged a group of journalists with a nod of the head or slight wave. Journalists were not allowed to speak with them or to cross a yellow line two yards from each cell. Guards’ faces were covered with black masks.
Each cell holds 65 to 70 prisoners. Steel walkways cross atop the cells so guards can watch prisoners from above. The prison does have dining halls, break rooms, a gym and board games, but those are for guards.
“We’re watching here all day, there’s no way to escape, from here you don’t get out,” said a guard with his face covered.
Melvin Alexander Alvarado, a 34-year-old “soldier” in the Barrio 18 Sureño gang serving a 15-year sentence for extortion, was the only prisoner that prison officials allowed to speak with journalists. He said prisoners were treated well and were fed.
Alvarado, his shaved head and his arms completely covered in gang tattoos, said he hoped people would help him find a job when he gets out and give him a chance at a new life. He planned to speak to young people, discouraging them from joining a gang.
“I lost everything here, I lost my family, everything,” he said.