El Salvador Intensifies Attempts to Break Gangs’ Control over Prisons

Authorities in El Salvador have announced a massive transfer of incarcerated MS13 and Barrio 18 members to a single prison facility, in an effort to reverse the gangs’ consolidation of power within the penitentiary system. 

Nearly 3,600 incarcerated gang members will be transferred to the Izalco prison in western El Salvador, reported El Mundo. The inmates are members of the MS13 and its rival the Barrio 18, the country’s two largest gang structures.

The director of the country’s prisons, Rodil Hernández, said the process will begin on February 21 with the transfer of nearly 1,300 inmates, while the remaining 2,300 are scheduled to arrive within the following 45 days. The decision aims to reduce the chronic overcrowding of El Salvador’s prisons and sever contact between imprisoned gang members and the outside world. 

Meanwhile, Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde has announced that the government will begin a rehabilitation and reintegration program for gang members who reside both in and out of the prisons. 

InSight Crime Analysis

How to tackle the threats posed by imprisoned gang members is a question that El Salvador has long grappled with. A forthcoming report by InSight Crime documents how, over a period of decades, the prisons became a center of operations for the country’s largest and most violent street gangs. 

Members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs began to arrive in the country’s prison towards the end of the civil war between the government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN).

Thanks to a policy known as “Mano Dura” (Iron Fist), the country’s prison population began to swell, as did the number of incarcerated gang members. The number of inmates across the country rose from 7,754 in 2000 to 35,879 in October 2016. By 2015, a third of the total inmate population were gang members.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Prisons

Clashes between MS13 and Barrio 18 inmates became so frequent and violent that by the end of 2000, authorities decided to assign inmates to segregated prisons. The separation of the gangs into their own facilities significantly reduced violence, but it also allowed them to tighten control over prisons. The prisons effectively became the gangs’ headquarters, where they could recruit new members and grow their power. 

Conscious of these threats, authorities have recently begun to move away from the segregation policy. The planned transfers to Izlaco of both MS13 and Barrio 18 members is a reflection of this shift in strategy. 

These changes have already had a major impact on the demographics of Izalco. For years a prison reserved for members of the Barrio 18 gang, dozens of MS13 members were transferred there in 2015, including Antonio Carrillo Alfaro, alias “El Chory.” Chory was a mid-level leader of the MS13 who led a rebellion within the gang before being assassinated on January 6, 2016 on orders from the MS13’s top command.