El Salvador Blocks Prison Cellphones in Attempt to Cut Extortion

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Authorities in El Salvador are attempting to block cellphone signals in the country’s prisons, a measure that if succesfully implemented could cut extortion and hamper criminal activities coordinated by imprisoned gang leaders.

Of the 19 prisons in El Salvador, ten have already installed new cellphone signal-blocking technology and four others are in the process of receiving the equipment, according to El Diario De Hoy

Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo said the 14 prisons selected to receive the new technology have the largest prison populations, and that the measure — proposed in the past but never successfully implemented — should reduce extortion calls coming from inside prisons.

Just last November, 90 cellphones were found in a random sweep of a single prison.

In addition to blocking cellphone signals, the new equipment will also remove access to the Internet and, in turn, social networks. Incarcerated gang members, including those convicted of murder, have been found using Facebook and have been shown to have contact with other imprisoned gang members through the network.

In Honduras, a similar plan has been implemented, with cellphone signals blocked in all 24 of the country’s prisons since February.

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The problem of cellphones entering and being used inside El Salvador’s prisons has long been known but has not been easy to solve, as many facilities are repurposed public buildings used to house a prison population that exploded during the country’s years of hard-line policies against gangs. As a result, many still have electrical outlets that prisoners use to recharge cellphones and other electronics.

The gangs are also largely in charge of the prisons, which are overcrowded and have a limited number of guards, making it difficult to keep cellphones out of gang members’ hands. The idea of blocking cellphone signals was first proposed by outgoing president Mauricio Funes in 2009 but has yet to be implemented successfully.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

While it is not specified what type of technology El Salvador is using to block signals, it is most likely installing “managed access” technology, which can establish a radio-frequency umbrella around a prison and intercept signals from unapproved wireless devices, or jamming technology that interferes with the frequency. 

The other route, taken by Honduras, is to have cellular providers remove their signals around the prisons. But this method is much blunter and has denied service to citizens living near the prisons. However, Honduras has credited the removal of the cellphone signals with a 75 percent reduction in extortions, and El Salvador is likely hoping for a similar outcome. 

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