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Keeping a Lid on Prisons

Bukele’s government had once made a pact with the gangs. Now he was making war. In the first two months of the state of emergency, authorities arrested over 33,000 people, nearly doubling the prison population. The gangs had previously managed to exercise their power even from behind bars. But with Bukele’s crackdown, the tables have turned.

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Diego* was thrown into prison just days after El Salvador’s state of emergency began.

A 22-year-old university student, he had gone to buy some tortillas next to his house when police officers intercepted him and took him to a holding cell for a background check.

*This article is part of a six-part investigation, “El Salvador’s (Perpetual) State of Emergency: How Bukele’s Government Overpowered Gangs.” InSight Crime spent nine months analyzing how a ruthless state crackdown has debilitated the country’s notorious street gangs, the MS13 and two factions of Barrio 18. Download the or read the other chapters in the investigation

Diego had no criminal record. Nor did he have any established links to criminal groups. It did not matter: he became one of thousands of civilians thrown into El Salvador’s notoriously overcrowded penitentiary system in early 2022.

It was the start of El Salvador’s historic crackdown on its most prominent street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. Dubbed the régimen de excepción, the crackdown began in late March 2022 at the behest of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele.

Bukele’s government had once made a pact with the gangs. Now he was making war. In the first two months of the state of emergency, authorities arrested over 33,000 people, nearly doubling the prison population. Amidst that frenzy, Diego was swept into jail.

Like thousands of others, Diego and others soon found themselves sharing space with the gangs. The gangs had long been the most fearsome occupants of the country’s jails, leveraging strength in numbers to impose strict rules behind bars.

But with the state of emergency, they were not Diego’s main concern.

“The [gangs] weren’t so bad,” Diego said. “They asked us to follow some rules while in the cell, and that was it.”

It was, rather, the prison guards, who Diego most feared.

“They would hit you for anything and everything. All day and night you’d hear the cries of people being hit by the guards,” Diego said. They had everyone “perfectly under control.”

Diego’s account mirrored those of several other people jailed and later released during the state of emergency, who in interviews with InSight Crime described the tight control and excessive use of force by security forces in El Salvador’s jails.

In fact, the state has turned the tables on imprisoned gang members, a process that began before the crackdown but that now appears to be hindering them from mounting a collective response to the crackdown from behind bars.

Just how long the government can keep a lid on these gangs is a major question going forward. Past efforts to quell the gangs in El Salvador have suffered precisely because gang leaders were able to reestablish command and control from their jail cells.

This time, however, the government is trying to reset the table, in part by employing the extreme measures Diego described.

Prisons: A Muted Response

El Salvador’s gangs once took advantage of severe overcrowding and weak security in the country’s penitentiary system to operate jails as centers of operation, including coordinating extortion rackets, recruiting new members, and exerting discipline over their membership. The addition of over 77,000 new detainees during the state of emergency has further crowded the prisons, though at least 7,000 people had been released from jail as of mid-August, according to government officials.

Why Mega-Prisons Holding Tens of Thousands Won’t Make a Difference

The total prison population now stands at over 105,000 prisoners, around 1.7% of the country’s population. At the end of 2020, the total capacity of El Salvador’s penitentiary system was estimated at just over 27,000. Capacity has increased following the construction of a jail housing 5,000 inmates in 2021 and the completion of a mega-jail in 2022 with room for 40,000 prisoners, according to government estimates. Press reports suggest the mega-prison’s capacity may be closer to 20,000.

Despite these new spaces, Salvadoran prisons are still severely overcrowded, possibly operating at double their capacity. This has raised concerns about whether the gangs could regroup in overcrowded jails or seek recruits from civilians swept up in the arrests.

So far, this does not appear to be happening, in part because of the extreme measures taken to control prisoners. Accounts like Diego’s — in addition to many others heard by InSight Crime over the course of this study — suggest prison authorities maintain near-complete control behind bars and routinely subject prisoners to beatings and psychological torment. To restrict their ability to communicate with other inmates and the outside world, prisoners are often confined to their cells around the clock.

Through April 2023, the human rights organization, Cristosal, documented 153 deaths in the penitentiary system. In a report published in May, the organization said none of these people had been convicted of a crime and that many of those who died were buried in “mass graves.”

Yet, there are some cases of gang members using their clout to secure benefits and impose rules on other inmates. Diego told InSight Crime that jailed members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 designated two cell leaders, one from each gang, to resolve day-to-day issues and set rules for their cellmates. This includes granting permission to use the toilet or shower, and controlling the distribution of drinking water and food. Breaking these rules resulted in a beating, a common gang reprisal.

He also said that gang members could secure privileges such as sleeping on a bunk bed or showering before others. This dynamic does not appear to be uniform; others detained during the state of emergency said they did not encounter gang members in their cells.

InSight Crime did not find any evidence of a coordinated or violent gang response to state authority behind bars. Communication between jailed gang members and the streets had largely been cut off even before the state of emergency began. Members of both gangs are now mixed in the same cells, according to three people interviewed by InSight Crime who were detained, then released. Communication between cells appears to be severely limited, hampering any efforts to coordinate gang activity.

There have been multiple reports of prisoner abuse — including electrocutions — malnourishment, and deaths behind bars as a result of overcrowding and state aggression during the state of emergency. The extreme methods of subjugation appear to have forced the gangs into survival mode and may have hindered their capacity to communicate between cells, access weapons, and devise possible strategies to regroup or retaliate.

Gang Communication and Hierarchy

The state of emergency appears to have limited the gangs’ ability to communicate and transmit orders between ranks.

Prior to the state of emergency, top MS13 and Barrio 18 leaders had engaged in secret negotiations with the Bukele administration held behind bars. Gang leaders showed they could influence the rank-and-file by ordering subordinates to cease murders. They also did the opposite, instructing street-level members to unleash a spree of murders as a sort of bargaining chip in the negotiations or to murder members who did not adhere to their leaders’ instructions.

Gang Murder Rampage Sends Shockwaves Through El Salvador Government

But the gangs’ near-complete collapse after the onset of the state of emergency may signal a rupture in communication between imprisoned gang leaders and lower-ranking members or street-level leaders. One active gang member, for example, who went into hiding when the state of emergency began, said he lost communication with other cells and then threw away his phone to avoid being tapped by authorities.

During previous crackdowns, the same source added, the gang would lie low before gradually reestablishing contact. But, he said, the speed of the state of emergency arrests left the gangs with too little time to establish new communication networks.

Existing restrictions on communication and visits for imprisoned gang members have also been tightened during the state of emergency. Cristosal’s rule of law and security director, Zaira Navas, told InSight Crime that even defense lawyers for gang members cannot visit their clients.

Gang members outside of jail also told InSight Crime they had lost contact with imprisoned members.

“Communication in [El Salvador’s] prisons is undoubtedly cut off,” one semi-retired MS13 member who fled to Mexico told InSight Crime.

International communications also appear to have been severed. Before the state of emergency, there was a direct line of communication between gang members in US prisons and the MS13 in El Salvador. But a US prison official told InSight Crime that imprisoned MS13 members no longer received communication from gang leaders in El Salvador. Without its leadership in El Salvador, the source added, the gang lacks direction.

*Diego’s name has been altered on request to preserve his anonymity

*With additional reporting by Steven Dudley, Carlos Garcia, César Fagoaga, Bryan Avelar, Roberto Valencia, and Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson

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