El Salvador’s newly constructed mega prison, located in Tecoluca, is gradually filling with accused or convicted gang members captured during the state of exception declared by President Nayib Bukele. The prison, which has a capacity of 40,000, currently holds approximately 12,000 inmates. However, concerns have been raised regarding the lack of rehabilitation programs and the absence of visits for prisoners. Human rights organizations have criticized the prison’s massive scale and its focus solely on confinement without any efforts towards reintegration into society.
President Bukele ordered the construction of the Terrorism Confinement Center in response to a surge in gang violence, resulting in over 72,000 arrests of alleged gang members or affiliates since early last year. While Bukele’s security policies are popular among Salvadorans, human rights organizations argue that thousands have been unjustly detained without due process, and dozens have died in prisons.
The prison consists of eight sprawling pavilions, each housing 65 to 70 prisoners. Guards, whose faces are covered with black masks, monitor the inmates from steel walkways above the cells. The prisoners are not allowed outside and have limited interaction with the outside world. The prison does provide basic amenities such as dining halls, break rooms, a gym, and board games, but these are exclusively for the guards.
Journalists visiting the prison were not permitted to speak with the prisoners, who sat in rows in the corridor outside their cells. The only exception was Melvin Alexander Alvarado, a 34-year-old member of the Barrio 18 Sureño gang serving a 15-year sentence for extortion. Alvarado, covered in gang tattoos, expressed hope for a chance at a new life upon release and intended to discourage young people from joining gangs.
The construction of the mega prison and its subsequent operation have drawn criticism from human rights organizations due to the lack of rehabilitation programs and the absence of visits for prisoners. However, President Bukele’s security policies have been well-received by many Salvadorans, as they have led to a decrease in gang control in various neighborhoods.