Security at the Expense of Human Rights: The Case of El Salvador’s “Megacárcel”

Image Source: CNN

At the end of February, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced the transfer of the first 2,000 prisoners to the “biggest prison in the Americas,” the “Terrorism Containment Center” (Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo – CECOT).

The opening of this “megacárcel” (mega prison) is just one of the measures Bukele has undertaken under his “mano dura” policy, which aims to win the government’s self-declared war against criminal organizations operating in the country.

Bukele’s announcement reignites the ongoing challenge of balancing the enhancement of national security and a country’s efforts to uphold and respect human rights. While Bukele frames his “mano dura” model as a success for bettering the country’s security, human rights defenders and prisoners’ families warn of the various violations related to the government’s initiatives. The mega prison is just the latest contribution towards normalizing allegedly successful security policies at the expense of human rights standards, a phenomenon affecting the Latin American region.

Why a New Prison?

El Salvador’s new maximum security prison, located 74 kilometers away from the country’s capital, was designed to incapacitate prisoners instead of rehabilitating them. According to Bukele, “the criminals [hosted there] will serve their sentence without ever again having contact with the outside world.”

The mega prison constitutes one of the measures under Bukele’s mano dura security policy, which aims at combating gangs operating in El Salvador, such as the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The presidency blames these groups for perpetrating the majority of crimes El Salvador has recorded in recent years.

By declaring a prolonged state of emergency, which the Salvadoran Congress first approved in March 2022, Bukele is able to justify the mano dura policy. Since March 2022, the government has suspended several constitutional rights, such as freedom of association and due process. By suspending due process, Bukele can direct the authorities within the prison system to forgo providing a reason for the arrest and detention of thousands of individuals who may be innocent.

Punitive Populism: Security Over Human Rights

In October 2022, Gallup reported that Bukele had an approval rating of 86% in El Salvador, making him the most popular leader in the region. The support for Bukele’s “punitive populism” has surfaced mainly from the considerable reduction of crime resulting from the mano dura policy. In 2022, presidential reports showed a 45% reduction in homicides compared to 2021. Official data also highlight January 2023 as “the safest month in Salvadoran history,” with only eleven homicides, compared to the 740 killings of January 2016.

But Bukele’s mano dura policy has not been all sunshine and rainbows: an increase in human rights violations quickly followed the decline in crime. With 62,000 detentions between March 2022 and February 2023, the number of arrests seems like an incredible achievement when used as an indicator of success in combating criminal gangs. However, the Salvadoran police estimate that one in six arrested individuals is innocent. Citizens are even encouraged to denounce suspected “terrorists” through a hotline, enabling citizens to denounce their neighbors simply for having personal vendettas. Both international entities and local human rights defenders, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned the indiscriminate nature of arrests facilitated by the elimination of due process under the state of emergency.

Over 2% of the Salvadoran adult population is currently under arrest. A Salvadoran woman interviewed by The Guardian stated, “This isn’t a war on gangs. It’s a war on the people.” Arrests are used as a primary indicator of success in the war against gangs and therefore security forces are pressured to reach a detention quota. Security forces fulfill their quota by detaining innocent people as well, which mainly affects marginalized communities.

Figure 1: Reported arbitrary detentions between March 2022 and June-July

Source: Observatorio Universitario de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador

Together with arbitrary arrests, the government has committed other serious violations. Most notably, Human Rights Watch reported several enforced disappearances and torture cases. The inhumane conditions that prisoners face in jail bluntly violate international standards. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) warrant that prisoners shall be treated with respect “due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.” According to these rules, under no circumstance can states justify a lack of compliance with this fundamental principle.

The newly inaugurated Salvadoran mega prison fails to comply with the Nelson Mandela Rules. For example, the prison does not supply detainees with a mattress. The prison only includes two sinks and two toilets per cell, which holds over a hundred prisoners. Moreover, the prison does not include a recreation area, violating Rule 105 of the Mandela Rules. Salvadoran NGO Fundación Cristosal compares CECOT’s treatment of its prisoners to the death penalty, noting that prisoners deal “with extreme suffering that can even be considered torture.”

The Salvadoran Case as an Example of a Regional Phenomenon

The increasing arrest rate has led to considerable growth in the inmate population of El Salvador, which is just one of the examples of a widespread regional phenomenon. According to political scientists Hathazy and Mueller, “Latin America’s contemporary democracies are imprisoning more people than the dictatorships that haunted the region throughout much of the twentieth century.”

The authors frame this phenomenon by describing the states’ shift from the rule of law towards the “rule through law.” In this process, political leaders convert the “neutral and impartial character of law […] into political means” by criminalizing practices usually associated with marginal groups of society. Laws and reforms, like the suspension of due process in El Salvador, are framed as critical for providing public safety and security, creating a divide between “rights-deserving citizens” and “punishment-deserving criminals.” By excluding the latter from legal and political spheres, political actors ultimately aim to increase their legitimacy. This “penal populism,” in summary, provides a perception of security at the expense of human rights.

The Price for Security

Hathazy and Mueller’s framework is helpful in evaluating El Salvador’s situation. As theorized, initiatives like the new mega prison have increased Bukele’s popularity. However, the official data coming from the presidency is impossible to verify, as the government does not provide public access to a reliable registry of homicide cases. Additionally, the registry fails to count inmates’ deaths committed by the government. Moreover, the Salvadoran digital newspaper El Faro provided compelling evidence that the drop in homicides resulted from secret negotiations between the government and gangs rather than from incarcerations. For these reasons, conflict researcher Sabine Kurtenbach asserts that Bukele’s self-proclaimed enhanced security is “just propaganda.”

What is most concerning is that Bukele is sending the message that human rights can and need to be violated to achieve security. Bukele’s human rights violations are contributing to the progressive establishment of a higher standard of tolerance for human rights abuses in Latin America. At the same time, the “Bukele effect” has already reached neighboring states. Honduras, for instance, has been under a state of emergency since last December, which, like in the case of El Salvador, has allowed the government to restrict citizens’ rights.

The design of the mega prison is just the latest example of Bukele’s disdain for human rights. Normalizing the trampling of these rights has been Bukele’s signature for providing a perception of safety among his constituents. But should the price for security really be this high?

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