Inside El Salvador's hellish Cojutepeque prison

El Salvador's Cojutepeque jail is a perfect illustration of how prisons in this country have become the main breeding and training grounds for street gangs.

With 1,200 prisoners packed in a prison made for 300, the jail is four times over capacity. Prisoners are crammed into rooms where they sleep, one on top of the other, in makeshift beds or hammocks.

El Salvador's prisons have been chronically overwhelmed. According to the most recent official numbers -- from 2011 -- El Salvador's penitentiary system is operating at 299 percent its official capacity, with a total of 25,400 inmates. The decrepitude in the prisons is not a new phenomenon, but it became a crisis after the government adopted the so-called "Mano Dura" or "Iron Fist" gang policy in 2003, allowing police to arrest suspected gang members in mass sweeps in an attempt to quell the violence and slow the gangs' growth.

The opposite has happened. As the percentage of inmates jailed for gang-related crimes doubled in just three years, the prison population swelled, and conditions for inmates became even more harsh and dangerous. In the meantime, gangs grew to now include an estimated 60,000 members.

In Cojutepeque, there is no escaping the gang life. The inmates spend most of their time in a dirt-floored space about the size of a basketball court. There they play soccer most of the time, or accommodate family or other visitors on visitors day.

There is a small television room that has space for a dozen inmates at any one time. During InSight Crime's visit to the jail in October 2012, a new flat-screen TV was playing the Pixar movie "Cars."

The inmates shower by pouring buckets of water from a well where garbage is strewn on the ground. Some of them sleep just above one of the toilets.

Throughout the country, basic living conditions in the country's penal centers remain nightmarish. As observed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), following a tour of several Salvadoran prisons in 2010, inmates typically had to use their hands or other improvised plates to eat their meals. Many sleep in hammocks, or pay money to rent space on a bunk bed shared with another prisoner. One detention center seen by the IACHR had waste from an overflowing sewage drain spilling out on the floor. Sanitation, potable water, lighting, and ventilation are all inadequate, as a State Department report asserted in 2011. There is little access to medical supplies, let alone educational opportunities. Mass food poisoning and deadly fires are a very present risk.

In Cojutepeque, rehabilitation has taken a backseat to retraining and restoring the gangs' hierarchy. There is no library, no job training programs, only a small workshop where gang members can draw and paint pictures they mostly give to their family members.

Everyone in Cojutepeque is a member of the Barrio 18 gang. They were separated from their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), as a means to slow the fighting between the two in the prison system. What began as an experiment in violence control has offered the gangs a chance to re-establish their hierarchy and rules. The gangs have instituted the type of discipline that allows them to solidify their ranks on the inside and enforce the rules on the outside. You cannot survive in this prison if you are not a member of the Barrio 18.

The gangs have also used their time in prison to develop a new criminal modus operandi. From here, for example, gangs systematically extort small shops, public transportation systems, and businesses on the outside, typically using cell phones to demand payment. The proceeds are spread along what amounts to a food chain, one that depends just as much on these illicit earnings as the gang leaders themselves. This food chain includes family members; other gang members and girlfriends of the leaders; corrupt prison guards and police.

It is not only faulty physical conditions in the buildings or lack of space that make El Salvador's prisons inhospitable. In Cojutepeque, there are ten prison guards that keep watch. Around the edges of the prison are masked army personnel. These prison guards, police, and military regularly abuse inmates, along with the family members who come to visit.

The army in particular has been blamed for arbitrary and cruel treatment. The IACHR documented cases in which members of the military conducted inappropriate vaginal and anal searches of the women who visit inmates. Female inmates also told the IACHR that those responsible for conducting such intimate searches would use the same plastic glove to inspect multiple women. Other inmates are beaten and tortured by authorities, sometimes in order to elicit a confession for a legal case, sometimes as punishment for breaking a prison rule.

The masked prison guards who patrol El Salvador's detention centers are widely seen as badly trained and corrupt. Some collaborate with the inmates in conducting criminal activity. There is little doubt that on the whole, inmates submit to little outside authority in El Salvador's penal centers, openly carrying weapons and using cell phones, which are technically prohibited. When riots break out, the guards do little to stop the chaos. Such fights often see dozens wounded and killed.

However, most of the time, it is the gangs who run the show on the inside. During InSight Crime's visit to Cojutepeque, the gang leaders gave the investigator the tour of the facility. The prison guards simply opened and closed the doors upon command.

Resources

Coll, P. (2012). El carcel de "lujo" de las pandillas. El Faro.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2010). Preliminary Observations on the visit to El Salvador by the Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty. General Secretariat Organization of American States.

US Department of State (2011). Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.