Under a rigorous security scheme, more than 12,000 suspected gang members from El Salvador are locked up in a mega-prison built by order of President Nayib Bukele, a symbol of the war he launched last year against the gangs.
The penitentiary center, considered the largest in America, has been going through six months between lights and shadows.
“When you are a child, anyone tells you lies, sweetens it up and you fall into a mistake, and when you grow up (…) you come to realize it,” Nelson Velásquez, 37, told AFP. has “MS-13” (Mara Salvatrucha) tattooed on his head.
Velásquez gave his testimony in the framework of a visit that the Human Rights Commissioner of El Salvador, the Colombian Andrés Guzmán, and the Human Rights Attorney, Raquel Caballero, made on Monday to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT), in Tecoluca , about 74 km southeast of San Salvador.
The mega-prison with a capacity for 40,000 people began receiving inmates on February 24, and to date there are 12,114 suspected gang members, mostly accused of belonging to the violent Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, born on the streets of the US city of Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
With his hands tied, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, Velásquez, an inmate in cell 13 of building 3, says that he has already served two sentences for different crimes that totaled 15 years, but now he awaits a new trial.
The prison pavilions have a curved roof that guarantees natural ventilation for the prisoners, as well as skylight spaces to filter the sun’s rays into a patio that separates the cells.
Velásquez narrates that the movement of the sun determines the turn of the inmates so that each cell receives some rays.
“Here we are persevering day by day trying to change,” José Hurquilla Bonilla, from the Barrio 18 gang, manages to say from inside a cell.
The jail was built to hold part of the more than 70,000 gang members detained under an emergency regime that was decreed by Congress at the request of Bukele, in response to an escalation of violence that claimed the lives of 87 people between 25 and March 27, 2022.
To build the prison, the State bought 166 hectares, 23 of which were used to build eight pavilions that are located within a perimeter surrounded by a concrete wall 11 meters high and 2.1 kilometers long, protected by electrified barbed wire. .
During the visit to the prison, Commissioner Guzmán asked the inmates about their situation in the cells and most of them said that the water “is not lacking”, but they asked for brooms and detergent to clean the cells.
Other prisoners divided opinions, some say they receive toothpaste, brushes and soap on time, while others clamored for medicines for those with terminal illnesses.
In each cell of about 100 square meters there are between 60 and 75 inmates who have metal cabins, two toilets and two sinks with running water for washing, as well as two containers with drinking water.
“There are many things to improve, and every day there is a team working,” Commissioner Guzmán responded to the inmates.
Humanitarian organizations have questioned the treatment received in prisons by those accused of belonging to gangs.
In a report after the first year of the emergency regime, the Human Rights NGO Cristosal denounced that it had a record of 174 deaths in state custody, and described it as “a permanent measure of repression and violations of human rights.”
But at CECOT, according to Guzmán, “inmates, within the general parameters of a detention center, are in good condition (and) human rights are respected.”
Complaints about the shortage of food” and the registration of activities
After talking with inmates from different cells, the Human Rights attorney, Raquel Caballero, said that the inmates complained about the food rations.
“They complain that the food is not enough” and “that they are free, they do nothing because they are locked up,” Caballero told AFP.
The imprisoned gang members, according to the official, “are aware that what they did (crimes) has brought them (until) here.”
The attorney said that a medical team of 50 people, including nurses and doctors, is caring for the inmates.
A doctor stated that “daily” water samples are taken and sent to a laboratory to guarantee its quality.
In February, the CECOT began with a severe regime in which the inmates never left their cells, and are still not allowed to receive family visits, but for inmates like Velásquez, as time goes by, “the blessing is flowing,” he says in reference to the fact that the majority have declared themselves “Christians”.
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