Salvadoran authorities' frustrated attempts to stem cash flows in prisons point to the strength of prison economies in El Salvador, and mirror concerns regarding government control of prisons across the region.
The "Cero Dinero" (Zero Cash) system assigns each inmate a debit account in which family members can deposit money, according to La Prensa Grafica. Prisoners can only have $100 in their accounts at a time, and careful record is taken of who deposits money.
According to El Diario de Hoy, between February 2015 and the middle of January 2016, $9 million moved through the Cero Dinero system -- prisoners used their account numbers to purchase more than $7 million worth of food and personal care items from prison stores, and spent more than $1 million on calls from prison phones.
However, the new system has not been able to stop the flow of money and illicit goods in prisons. In a late January 2016 prison raid, authorities seized $11,000 in cash, along with more than 300 cell phones and 700 sim cards.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Cero Dinero plan is the latest in a series of measures Salvadoran authorities have implemented in order to stem illegal economies flourishing inside prisons -- including the sale of cell phones, sim cards, and drugs. The move is also linked to efforts to stop extortion rings run with cell phones from Salvadoran jails. In 2013, authorities installed prison phones that could be monitored -- and starting in 2015, inmates used the Cero Dinero system to pay for these calls.
In the past, El Salvador has tried limiting the number of visitors for prisoners, separating gang members, and blocking cell phone service to prisons. However, none of these efforts have been successful in stopping criminal economies run from prisons.
Why has this been such a difficult task? Perhaps the answer is linked to the phenomena reported in Guatemala and Mexico. According to Animal Politico, 88 percent of state prisons in Mexico do not separate prisoners who have been convicted from those who have been charged. And in Guatemala, Prensa Libre reports that 3,000 Guatemalan prisoners have finished their sentences but have not been released.
While the Salvadoran government has implemented policies to limit certain elements of the criminal economies, they have not addressed larger issues of lack of government control in prisons. Latin American prisons are also among the most overcrowded and dangerous in the world; El Salvador's prisons are particularly crowded, with a 325 percent occupancy.
The overcrowding and lack of state investment has allowed inmates to essentially control prisons and build economies important for criminal groups inside and outside prisons.