El Salvador Places Gang Inmates in ‘Total Confinement’ in Response Spike in Killings

MS-13 Gang Member in El Salvador - GETTY IMAGES Jan Sochor
File Photo: Jan Sochor/Getty Images

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele authorized the police to use “lethal force” against gang members on Sunday, accusing gangsters of taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to launch a deadly rampage against cops and law-abiding Salvadorans.

Despite the pandemic, Bukele’s deputy security minister, Osiris Luna, said inmates will be packed into overcrowded prisons where they “will not receive sunlight.”

“They will be in total confinement 24 hours a day in the seven maximum security prisons that there are in this country,” Luna said. 

Salvadoran media published photos showing hundreds of nearly naked prisoners huddled together like sardines, wearing only surgical masks for protection, while their cells were searched. The government itself published videos of these unsettling tableaus, to put gang members on notice that unpleasant experiences await them behind bars.

The cell searches were ordered because Bukele and Luna said imprisoned gang members were sending out orders to commit murder. Luna said the prisons would remain tightly locked down until these illicit communications networks are disrupted.

“We have taken the decision to mix and imprison in each of the cells the different groups of the criminal gangs that are causing so much damage to the country,” Luna continued. “The government will not bow down to any terrorist structure. This state is going to enforce the law and make it respected.”

In other words, the government ordered members of rival gangs to be shoved into the same crowded cell together, to make it harder for leaders of any given gang to send messages to the outside world. 

“The leaders will go into solitary isolation. No contact with the outside. The stores will remain closed and all activities will be suspended until further notice. The National Civil Police of El Salvador will not rest until they find those responsible,” said Bukele.

“The use of lethal force is authorized for self-defense or for the defense of the lives of Salvadorans. We urge the opposition to side with honest people, and the institutions they control to stop protecting those who murder our people. The gangs are taking advantage of the fact that almost all of our public forces are controlling the pandemic. We will have to move resources to fight them,” Bukele declared.

Friday was the deadliest day for gang violence in El Salvador since Bukele took office, with 24 confirmed homicides. Sunday then topped Friday with 29 killings. Officials of the Bukele administration said significant progress against gang violence in the first months of the year were wiped out in April as the coronavirus became the focus of attention for law enforcement. At the peak of gang violence in 2015, El Salvador averaged 17.6 murders a day, but the rate was down to 2.1 as of March 2020.

According to various estimates, 13,000 to 17,000 gang members are currently held in El Salvador’s prisons, while over 65,000 more are terrorizing the streets. The total of all prisoners held in El Salvador is more than double the nominal maximum capacity of its prisons. Guards in the country’s prisons routinely wear masks so prisoners cannot identify them and order retaliatory violence against their families.

El Salvador has recorded 323 coronavirus infections as of Monday, with eight known fatalities. Health experts fear an impending explosion of cases in the crowded prisons, which have displayed far higher rates of infection for diseases like tuberculosis than the general population. Plans currently under consideration to alleviate overcrowding and reduce the risk of coronavirus fatalities by releasing older prisoners explicitly exclude gang members.

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