El Salvador's powerful leader, El Salvador, has constructed a huge prison on the remote Las Chiches volcano plains. It is hoped that it will become the largest prison in the world by population and be the most overcrowded.
President Najib Bukele proudly opened the "new home" for 40,000 prisoners last month. Gang members will be sent there to 'live for decades’ to pay for their crimes.
The vast criminal experience, if it reached its full capacity, would be unrivaled for the size of a prison – a facility that could hold two-thirds of Germany's total prison population in one location.
But if Bukele sees through his plans, the prison will also have another unique, chilling feature: It will set records for deliberately engineered overcrowding, according to a Financial Times investigation of the complex using satellite imagery.
According to calculations by the Financial Times, if the government announces a capacity of 40,000, prisoners will only be allowed 0.6 square meters in the shared cells. This is less than what one would expect for a humane prison, and less than half of the EU-required minimum to transport medium-sized livestock via road.
"Forty-thousand is too many to manage at once," Martin Horn, a retired administrator who ran New York City prisons including Rikers Island, said. Martin Horn, a former administrator who managed New York City's prisons, Rikers Island included, said, "Under no circumstances." '.
These alarming numbers raise questions about whether Bukele's plans for the show are more than a mere implementation. Few question Bukele's authoritarian tendencies or desire to push the boundaries.
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His security forces have detained 60,000 people in a year-long crackdown that rights groups say has led to widespread abuse. Even before that, the country already had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Experts now estimate that more than 2 percent of adults in the small Central American country of 6.3 million people are likely behind bars.
Satellite images of the prison known as the Terror Detention Center show that it covers 23 hectares. This is smaller than Rikers Island and Turkey's huge Marmara Prison. Both of these prisons are larger than the prison's perimeter, but have smaller populations.
Only 10.7 acres are required for eight prison buildings. This is the same area as six football fields. The video footage shows that two spaces in the prison are used as workspaces. Six buildings can be used for inmate accommodation. A separate building houses the prison guards, which includes a gym and table-tennis courts.
With the exception of the corridors between the cells, less than 6 acres remains for the prisoners, or only 0.6 square meters per prisoner if the prison holds 40,000. Bunk beds provide some extra space but the total is unlikely to exceed the arm span of an average adult. Many of the prisoners would live in the facility for decades.
The Salvadoran government did not respond to a request for comment.
Even though the prison has a lower occupancy rate than other facilities, El Salvador's large prison fails to meet established standards of humane treatment. The Council of Europe is the continent's highest body for human rights and recommends that prisoners in shared cells should have a minimum of 4 meters of space.
Bukele enjoyed highlighting the human rights of prisoners as a secondary concern. He says that critics of his security policies side with the gangs, and that his strategies have dramatically reduced murder rates.
Prison experts said the inhumane level of overcrowding would perpetuate a culture of criminality among those who were eventually released. 'What we will have is a huge prison that will become a small crime city,' said Gustavo Fondevilla of CIDE University in Mexico.
'For me it is a political campaign project, a typical campaign project of hard punitive populism.'
Cavan Applegate, an architect who chairs the design committee at the International Prison and Corrections Association, said the facility was simply 'storing' people.
The terrorist detention center in Ticoluca, El Salvador holds the first group of 2,000 prisoners on February 24, __LINK__alvador/Getty Images
Although plans for the prison are based on serious overcrowding offenders, the Bukele administration will ensure that there is minimal supervision to ensure order.
More than 1,000 guards will be on duty, 600 of them military personnel will guard the perimeter and 250 police officers will guard the towers.
If there were 1000 guards, this would indicate that the ratio of prisoners to prison officers was approximately 40 to 1. Before they were broken into shifts, This compares with about 4:1 in the UK, and 8:1 US federal prisons.
As Bukele attempted to end the violence of gangs in his country, El Salvador saw an extraordinary increase in its prison population.
Held in a cell at the Teculuca Terrorist Detention Center, El Salvador __LINK__alvador / Getty Images
Major gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 have their roots in both the United States and Central America. Salvadorans fled the violence during the country's brutal civil war, mainly to Los Angeles, and some of them ended up in gangs. Once the war ended in the 1990s, the United States deported many of them to El Salvador.
In 2015, El Salvador's homicide rate peaked at more than 100 per 100,000 people, then the highest in the world, driven by gangs who terrorized the public, controlled neighbourhoods, and engaged in extortion and murder with impunity.
Since then murders have fallen, a trend that has been maintained under Bukele. In 2022, the murder rate was 7.8/100,000. This is a low number in Latin America. Even critic media reported that Bukele had dismantled gangs.
However, the US has punished several Bukele officials, including one of the prison systems' heads, for allegedly brokering a secret truce with the gangs.
Bukele, the CEO of El Salvador known for a symbolic maneuver to legally tender bitcoin, has shown he's tough on crime. The 41-year-old, who rose to prominence as the mayor of San Salvador, is an avid social media user and once changed his Twitter bio to 'The coolest dictator in the world.'
In April 2020 his security forces lined up hundreds of gang members who were stripped to their underwear and forced to sit on the floor in long lines as punishment for a jump in violence.
Bukele's hardline approach to gangs was popular. Bukele has one of the highest approval ratings for any leader in the world, which is a challenge for democracy advocates who fear that success will only strengthen Bukele’s authoritarian instincts.
Since his four-year tenure, Bukele has dramatically centralized power and overthrown the two-party system which has ruled since 1992's civil war. He has a sealed legislature and replaced all of the Supreme Court justices with pro-justice ones. Despite being banned by the constitution, he pledged to run for reelection.
Stephen Levitsky is a Harvard University professor of Latin American Studies and co-author with David Rockefeller.
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He said, "This will reinforce his fundamental message to Salvadoran people that democratic parties in El Salvador are part of the problem, and that his autoritarian style is a solution."
Christopher Cook, London: Additional reporting