Nelson Rauda Portillo,  Director General of DGCP

An investigation by El Faro has revealed that the head of El Salvador's penitentiary system likely used his position to ensure favorable treatment for his incarcerated brother-in-law, as thousands of inmates who aren't so well-connected languish in the country's overpopulated, poorly run prisons.

According to El Faro, the brother-in-law of Nelson Rauda Portillo, the Director of the General Office of Penal Centers (DGCP), began serving a six-year sentence for drug possession in April of 2010. (El Faro did not reveal his name for security reasons.) Just two years later, he has already moved to the "Trusted Stage," during which prisoners are given privileges such as commuted sentences and exit permits, the online media source says.

While legally all prisoners are eligible, in practice the stage only applies to a privileged few, especially with regards to male inmates: out of the 24,353 men incarcerated as of November 26, only 374 had reached the "Trusted Stage," El Faro says. It's not illegal for Rauda's brother-in-law to have already been granted this privilege without completing even half his sentence, but the anonymous official sources consulted by El Faro all agreed that it would be impossible without some special maneuvering.

InSight Crime Analysis

The real issue is not so much Rauda's brother-in-law's favorable treatment in and of itself -- which, while unfair, does not appear to have violated any laws -- but rather the chaotic, arbitrary nature of El Salvador's penal system. The violence and high degree of gang control in Latin America's most overcrowded prison system are well-documented, but the heart of the problem is the failure of the country's penal and judicial institutions to deal fairly with all their inmates.

El Salvador's constitution, for instance, stipulates that prisoners must be regularly evaluated in order to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior, with rehabilitation as the end goal. Inmates are supposed to be evaluated every six months by DGCP "technical teams" made up of psychologists, doctors, lawyers, and other qualified professionals, who then pass their recommendations on to regional criminological councils.

In practice however, officials from the government's Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH) say that corruption is high within the DGCP, that the process is implemented arbitrarily, and that thousands of prisoners go years without receiving evaluations.