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Coming face to face with inmates in El Salvador's mega-jail

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By Mirela NanPublished 2 months ago 3 min read
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Hundreds of eyes are upon us. With shaven heads, dressed in pristine white, and heavily tattooed, the prisoners know they are being watched and return the gaze from the other side of the bars.

We are in Cecot (Centre for the Confinement of Terrorism), a maximum security jail built a year ago by the Salvadoran government to imprison "high-ranking" members of the country's main gangs.

A gargantuan complex constructed in the middle of nowhere, it symbolises President Nayib Bukele's controversial security policy more than any other project.

Critics of the president have called it a "black hole of human rights", where international guidelines on prisoner rights are flouted.

Animated guide: See inside El Salvador's secretive mega-jail

Miguel Sarre, a former member of the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, has described it as a "concrete and steel pit".

And referring to the fact that no-one has so far been released from the jail, Mr Sarre warned Cecot appeared to be used "to dispose of people without formally applying the death penalty".

But in a nation where notorious gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and the two factions of Barrio 18 - the Revolucionarios and the Sureños - have wreaked deadly havoc, the jail has been a major reason behind President Bukele's huge popularity and his success in the polls.

"Here are the psychopaths, the terrorists, the murderers who had our country in mourning," announces the director of the centre during a carefully choreographed tour of the cells organised by the government for international media.

"Don't look them in the eyes," the director, who does not want to be named but allows himself to be filmed, warns us.

It is the middle of the night, but in here, the artificial lights are never turned off.

A waft of air filters through the lattice ceiling, providing a brief respite from the heat. The temperature in the cells can reach 35C during the day and there is no other source of ventilation.

The prison may have been called "the Alcatraz of Central America" but it is not run down - everything is new, smooth, recently painted.

Hooded guards keep watch from above, gun in hand.

Below, the prisoners climb onto the four-storey bunks on which they sleep. Without any mattresses or sheets, they have to lie on bare metal.

They eat the food they are given - rice, beans, hard-boiled eggs or pasta - with their hands.

"Any utensil can be [fashioned into] a deadly weapon," the director explains.

There is nothing else within the cell's three cement walls apart from two sinks for prisoners to wash in and two toilets, which inmates have to use in plain sight of everyone else.

And there is nothing else to do but watch time go by.

Inmates only get to leave these cells for 30 minutes a day to exercise - using only their own bodyweight - in the central corridor of Block 3, which is the one our group of journalists is allowed to inspect.

There are seven other blocks like this one within the enormous complex, which covers the equivalent of seven football stadiums.

The compound is surrounded by two electrified fences and two reinforced concrete walls, and guarded by 19 towers.

According to the government, Cecot can hold up to 40,000 inmates.

But it is not clear how many are currently locked up there. Nor on what grounds those who are there have been selected for this facility.

Asked directly about the number of prisoners, the director responds: "We can't provide that information."

"What is the maximum capacity of each cell?" we insist.

"Where you can fit 10 people, you can fit 20," the director says, appearing to smile from behind his anti-Covid mask.

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About the Creator

Mirela Nan

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