El Salvador’s Prison Lockdown

Not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells

Osiris Luna, Deputy Justice Minister

Last month shocking pictures emerged of the inhumane conditions inside the prisons of El Salvador. These distressing images saw thousands of inmates stripped to their underwear and lined up in such close proximity that they were pressed up against one another. The measures were introduced following a four day period at the end of April in which there were 77 murders in El Salvador. The photos show how the prisoners huddled together as their cells were searched for anything linking them to the outbreak of violence. President Nayib Bukele claimed to have inside information that suggested the murders had been orchestrated by gang members within the prisons, and the new measures should prevent these gang members from orchestrating further violence in society. 

According to Human Rights Watch, authorities enforced an “absolute lockdown” on gang members, locking them in cells for 24 hours and confining gang leaders to solitary confinement for unspecified time periods. The Deputy Justice Minister, Osiris Luna, added that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells” as they enforced the measures that saw windows and doors bordered up as members of multiple different gangs were locked up in the same cells. 

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. The photos published by the Presidential Press Office are clear violations of this fundamental human right, regardless of the individual’s involvement in gang activities. 

As if not horrific enough on their own, these conditions have come amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, in which public health guidance has tirelessly stated the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread. Whilst some wore face masks, most of the prisoners had little to no protection against the possible spread fo COVID-19. With prisons already presenting a higher risk of the infection spreading than the wider society, the government’s new prison lockdown measures have made El Salvador’s prisoners and prison staff extremely vulnerable. 

One of the most densely populated countries in South America, El Salvador has one of the highest rates of homicides in the world. This is largely down to the extensive gang activity that controls and terrorises vast amounts of the country. The gang culture erupted following a devastating civil war in the 1980s that was sparked by gross inequality that separated the majority from a small and wealthy minority, and left roughly 70,000 dead. The civil war exposed many young Salvadorian children to horrific violence. In an attempt to escape the brutality many fled to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. Here, they came together in ethnic solidarity to protect themselves against LA’s existing gangs. When the US introduced restrictive immigration laws in 1992, many of those who had fled El Salvador during the war were forced to return, bringing their gang culture to an already struggling state. 

It is difficult to see a way out of this gang culture, which is so ingrained within El Salvador’s society, but it is unlikely that government violations of human rights such as those experienced in prisons are the answer.

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