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Thursday, March 9, 2023

March 09, 2023

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele shared a video on Twitter last week featuring the transfer of hundreds of detainees to a new "megaprison" called the Center for Confining Terrorism. The facility, constructed last year to accommodate the country's growing prison population, is the largest prison in the Americas with capacity for 40,000 inmates. 
The video, set to fast-paced music, garnered praise from far-right commentators in the US and Salvadorean and foreign supporters of the president's "iron-fisted" approach to fighting crime and restoring pride in the country's armed forces. 

However, human rights activists and pro-democracy groups have expressed concern about the risk to El Salvador's democracy as state security takes precedence over constitutional rights in an indefinite state of emergency. The timing of the video is also noteworthy as it was released 24 hours after a US indictment alleged that El Salvador's government had made secret deals with infamous gang MS-13.

According to recently released court documents, members of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele’s government have been accused of secretly entering prisons in the country to negotiate with MS-13 gang leaders. The US attorneys allege that the Salvadorean government freed an MS-13 gangster wanted for extradition by the United States. Although it does not name the government representatives alleged to have negotiated with the gang, the indictment paints a picture of favors granted by Bukele’s government to one of the world’s bloodiest criminal gangs in exchange for help reducing murders in the country. “In exchange, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador, by creating the perception that the government was reducing the murder rate,” the indictment alleges. The documents further add that MS-13 leaders continued to authorize murders where the victims’ bodies were buried or hidden, despite the agreement. Salvadorean authorities have not commented on the matter.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele has been criticized for imposing harsh policies that have led to increased incarceration rates in the country, with up to 2% of the adult population in prison, or roughly 100,000 people. Bukele suspended constitutional rights in March 2021, allowing the security forces to jail citizens on suspicion of being part of a gang. While government figures show that more than 60,000 people have been sent to prison since the state of emergency was declared, human rights activists are concerned that many were arbitrarily arrested without sufficient evidence, posing a significant problem for public security. In addition, inmates are held together in communal cells, creating optimal conditions for gang recruitment.

Moreover, US Department of Justice officials have accused Bukele's government officials of secretly negotiating with MS-13 gang leaders to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador. The allegations are particularly concerning as lower ranks of the criminal world have been subject to harsh policies while top brass have received special treatment. Despite these criticisms, Bukele remains popular in El Salvador, with an 89% approval rating according to a poll by Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica. The 41-year-old leader has dismissed accusations of ruling by decree and has even described himself as "the world's coolest dictator" on Twitter. The violations of human rights in El Salvador continue to be a concern for activists, particularly as the country remains under a state of emergency.