El Salvador Mega-Prison gets 2,000 more inmates as gang crackdown continues

By Eddie Galdamez  |  Mar 16th, 2023
El Salvador Mega-Prison
Mega-Prison in Tecoluca.

El Salvador Mega-Prison in Tecoluca San Vicente opened in February 2023. The Confinement Center for Terrorism (CECOT) can hold 40,000 inmates, and it will help alleviate the current overpopulation in El Salvador’s prison system.

Transfer of inmates to the CECOT Mega-Prison

On March 15, 2023, 2,000 imprisoned gang members were transferred to the CECOT Mega-Prison, under tight security measures. The move came on the same day the Legislative assembly extended the State of Exception for the 12th consecutive time.

President Nayib Bukele reported on this second transfer of 2,000 gang members to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT) via his Twitter account.

This day, in a new operation, we transferred the second group of 2,000 gang members to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT). With this, there are already 4,000 gang members who inhabit the most criticized prison in the world.” Nayib Bukele.

The first 2,000 inmates were transferred on February 24. The transfer took place at night under extensive security arrangements by the Salvadoran Police and the Army.

As of today, there are 4,000 inmates being housed in what the Bukele administration calls the largest prison in Latin America, the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT).

El Salvador Mega-Prison inaguration

President Nayib Bukele presented the new state-of-the-art facility in a nationally televised broadcast on January 31, 2023. The president inspected the jail alongside Osiris Luna Mesa, the General Director of Penal Centers; Merino Monroy, the Minister of Defense; and Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the General Director of the National Civil Police.

Yesterday we inaugurated the Terrorism Containment Center, a gigantic structure constructed in just seven months. It is also a fundamental piece to ultimately winning the war against gangs.” Nayib Bukele.

Due to the increasing jailed population, the El Salvador Mega-Prison arrives at an ideal time. An example of an overpopulated jail is La Esperanza prison (Mariona); it currently holds about 32,000 people, despite having a capacity for only 10,000.

The rising inmate population is a result of the State of Exception. This anti-gang measure has resulted in the arrest of over 65,000 alleged gang members and contributors.

The Terrorism Confinement Centre CECOT will have 2,000 meters of perimeter walls with an additional electric fence. Inmates will be housed in pavilions, each with a capacity to hold over 2,500 people.

The government stated that the Tecoluca prison is the largest in Latin America. Furthermore, Osiris Luna Mesa, the General Director of the Penal Center, also explained that those inmates in the new prison would not have to leave the premises to attend their hearings; they are to be done by video calls.

The Tecoluca is a maximum security prison. The jail was built to house the most dangerous criminals with gang affiliation who have been sentenced.

The most dangerous inmates, the gang members who had hierarchies and verified that they have committed many murders, are the ones who will be in the Confinement Center for Terrorism (SECOT).” Merino Monroy.

According to the Government, more than 600 soldiers and more than 250 members of the National Civil Police (PNC) will be deployed inside and outside the CECOT facilities at all times to deal with any possible disturbance and to support security tasks. Also, the prison has several security rings, including a 15,000-volt electrified fence and 19 watchtowers.

The modern prison has strict security controls with video surveillance monitoring 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, the facility will have modern spaces for prison staff.

CECOT Mega-Prison in Tecoluca
CECOT Mega-Prison in Tecoluca San Vicente.

Gang crackdown continues

As of March 15, 2023, Salvadoran authorities report that over 65,0000 alleged gang members have been arrested under the state of exception. Defense Minister Rene Merino Monroy stated that the crackdown on criminal gangs will continue.

“About 30,000 gang members still need to be arrested, and those already captured add up to almost 65,000,” stated Merino Monroy.

Salvadoran authorities have been using the State of Exception to make this arrest; the security measure was approved in March 2022, and legislators have extended it 12 times.

The Minister of Security, Gustavo Villatoro, assured that the Security Cabinet will continue to request extensions for the Exception Regime until the last members of criminal structures are captured.

Legislators supporting the Bukele administration have stated that they will extend the State of Exception as many times as the Security Cabinet request it. It appears that the gang crackdown will continue for the rest of 2023.

The CECOT mega-prison controversy

The construction of this prison has occurred amid criticism from Bukele’s opposition; they have pointed out a lack of transparency, mainly due to the approval in the Legislative Assembly of a law that allowed bypassing the usual controls in state projects.

Human rights experts in El Salvador point out that the Tecoluca prison resembles a concentration camp. They are not the only ones criticizing the Tecoluca jail; Carolina Jimenez Sandoval, President of WOLA and former Amnesty International research director for the Americas, expressed her concerns.

With this prison, the government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador shows that it does not have clear plans to prevent crime (which is ideal in any society). Your main option is a permanent “exception” state where violations of #DDHH are committed.” Carolina Jimenez Sandoval.

Government officials have explained that this prison facility will serve to keep 40,000 of the more than 65,000 detainees behind bars under the state of emergency.