El Salvador Inmates Defy Phone Ban With Toilet Paper, Toothpaste

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A government crackdown on phone use in prisons has led inmates in El Salvador to adopt desperate measures to communicate with the outside world, including using toilet paper, toothpaste and medicine as writing tools.

This revelation by Osiris Luna Meza, El Salvador’s director of prisons and deputy justice minister, comes a few days after authorities detected 13 handwritten coded messages, known as “wilas,” in a soon-to-be released Barrio 18 gang member’s stomach, La Prensa Gráfica reported.

These messages usually contain specific orders from incarcerated gang leaders to other members on the outside. With a crackdown on prisons continuing, prisoners are using toothpaste or paste from medicines as ink to write on toilet paper or scraps of plastic.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

On June 21, President Nayib Bukele ordered telephone service providers to disable coverage and remove phone booths in El Salvador’s prisons. This measure was taken alongside a state of emergency in 28 of the country’s prison facilities as part of Bukele’s bid to carry on his predecessor’s crackdown on jails throughout the country.

The current state of emergency comes along with a drastic increase in repression and isolation in prisons. In addition to banning visits, inmates “can’t go outside and see the sun, they don’t have books or electronic devices, there is no football, no school, workshops, walks … and in some cases, no showers allowed,” as stated by Bukele.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador’s prisons are central hubs for powerful gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, as they provide a space “from which they can continue their criminal operations, be relatively safe from attack, and expand their own financial portfolio via new contacts and opportunities,” as InSight Crime reported in a 2017 investigation.

Incarcerated gang members are therefore desperate to maintain links with outside criminal operations and are finding creative ways to pass on their messages. This ingenuity, in turn, shows the cat-and-mouse game that has been unfolding between inmates and authorities for control of the prisons.

On June 26, Luna Meza reported that Salvadoran inmates sent to be treated in hospitals were now corrupting hospital workers in order to communicate orders to their associates. In reaction to this revelation, the government announced it will reform prison clinics to allow inmates to be treated inside.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

That same week, authorities announced a plastic-free policy in jails after an inmate was intercepted with 26 “wilas” written on transparent plastic in his stomach.

This back and forth is not showing any signs of abating. Bukele’s orders to ban mobile phone signals inside prisons came after it was revealed that jailed members used smartphones and social media platforms like Facebook to communicate with associates on the outside. Following the signal suspension, an intercepted “wila” ordered associates to send out drones equipped with radio reception to hover just outside prison walls.

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