El Salvador Congress Makes ‘Extraordinary’ Prison Measures Permanent

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El Salvador’s Congress passed a bill that makes permanent a previously temporary tightening of security measures in prisons, cementing a policy that has been criticized as ineffective and harmful to inmates’ human rights.

Congress passed the bill on August 16. It empowers the Justice and Public Security Ministry to take “all necessary and indispensable measures” to cut off telecommunications to and from detention facilities, and gives prison directors broad authority to suspend visitation privileges for periods of up to 30 days, according to a congressional press release.

The bill also formalizes a special regime of detention measures for inmates convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering, homicide, rape, kidnapping, extortion and certain other crimes. Individuals serving time for such offences will only be permitted supervised visits in which they are not allowed physical contact with the visitors and must communicate with them via “technological means.”

Congress first approved the so-called “extraordinary” measures in April 2016. At the time, the tightened security regime was supposed to be in place for a year, but the legislature has voted repeatedly to extend them.

The new bill still needs the signature of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to become law, but he is widely expected to sign it.

InSight Crime Analysis

The passage of the bill is a sign that lawmakers have not been deterred by criticisms of the extraordinary measures, which are likely to receive continued support from the governing party due to the political expediency of tough-on-crime policies.

Polls have consistently shown that Salvadoran citizens overwhelmingly believe that the extraordinary measures have failed to reduce criminality. A survey conducted in April and May showed three-quarters of respondents felt the measures have done little or nothing to disrupt gang activities. The same poll showed 70 percent of respondents believed crime has gotten worse during Sánchez Cerén’s term in office.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

But rather than acknowledging shortcomings in the security realm, the Sánchez Cerén government has instead boasted about the extraordinary measures and other security initiatives, crediting them for a decline in homicides. This appears to be related to the popularity of hard-line responses to El Salvador’s powerful gangs. Indeed, some citizens even cooperate with death squads that target gang members.

United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions Agnes Callamard cited this dynamic in an interview earlier this year with InSight Crime in which she described the extraordinary measures as “inhumane” and called on the government to rethink its security strategy.

“The [extraordinary measures] are a policy that goes against human rights and by making them permanent,” said Florida International University professor José Miguel Cruz. “The government is institutionalizing a policy of human rights abuses that will not contribute to the solution of the gang problem.”

Additionally, officials and independent experts have warned that making the extraordinary measures permanent could provoke backlash from the gangs.

“The government is committing to the tough hand approach and leaves few avenues and opportunities to the rehabilitation and reinsertion of gangs,” Cruz added. “In turn, [the gangs] may feel that the only way forward is to increase their assault [on] state institutions and consolidate their drive to become more organized.”

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