The Prisons of El Salvador's State of Exception

This is the second of my series on the State of Exception in El Salvador as it starts its third year.   Today we look at the prisons holding those persons arrested during Bukele's war on the gangs.

Since the beginning of the State of Exception two years ago, the prison population in El Salvador has skyrocketed.   Today El Salvador incarcerates people at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world, with almost 2% of the adult population behind bars.  The 78,000 people captured under the State of Exception, and held without trial, live in the hellish conditions of the Salvadoran prison system.  And, sadly, a significant majority of the Salvadoran public, thirsty for vengeance, applauds.

To add to the prison capacity of El Salvador, the Bukele regime built its new mega-prison, the Center for Confinement of Terrorism or CECOT.  This new prison grabs all the headlines.  But the story is not CECOT.  CECOT is the story Bukele wants to tell, but it is not the story that we should focus on.  Instead, the important fact is that tens of thousands of Salvadorans, never convicted of a crime, will spend years before trial in hellish conditions in all the other prisons in El Salvador where there are credible allegations of widespread torture, abuse, malnutrition and medical neglect.

When the State of Exception began, El Salvador's prisons held approximately 37,000 inmates, in a system designed to hold only 27,000.  The country's prisons had long been criticized for overcrowding and dehumanizing conditions. The level of overcrowding before March 2022 ranged from 160% - 400% in some prisons according to a report by FESPAD.  With the new war on gangs, 70,000 or more inmates have been shoved into this penal system, mixing both hardened gang members and innocent civilians arbitrarily captured on the streets of the country.  El Salvador does not jail the pre-trial detainee awaiting trial separately from the convicted murderer or rapist serving a sentence.    

The results have been deadly.  The legal aid organization Socorro Jurídico Humanitario has documented 235 deaths in El Salvador's prisons during the course of the State of Exception.  According to the group, 48% of those deaths showed signs of violence and another 30% died for lack of adequate medical attention. Stories of three who died in one week in the Izalco prison are here.  Families are frequently not notified of a death in the prisons until a funeral home contacts them with the body of their loved one.

It is important to remember that at least 2/3 of the persons held in Salvadoran prisons under these conditions have not yet been convicted of a crime.  The government is incarcerating them for trials which may not be commenced until the beginning of 2026.   (More on this timing in a future post).

Mariona Prison

El Faro profiled a sadistic guard in the Mariona prison known as "Montaña."  He exemplified the abuses being highlighted within the prison system according to the periodical:

Since the beginning of the regime, reports of mistreatment inside prisons have not stopped growing: torture, humiliating treatment, suspension of food and medicine, isolation and even murders have been documented by civil human rights organizations and the independent press. 

Cases of tuberculosis are reportedly rising in Izalco prison and other prisons around the country.  In overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, the potentially fatal disease can spread quickly.

Although the government has shared no statistics about the number of women detained as part of the State of Exception, the conditions of their confinement are equally inhumane:

In its report, Cristosal documented accounts of women who lived in inhumane conditions. “In some prison units at the bottom there were thousands of women sleeping on the floors, without mattresses, without blankets, and since it was the rainy season they got wet at night... Since there was no medical assistance, I saw die an old woman of 50 or maybe 56 years old,” says one of the women interviewed.

The country is in violation of innumerable provisions of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

The suffering is not only within the prisons.  Families outside are decimated as well.   When a primary breadwinner is arbitrarily and illegally detained and sent into the prison system, the family loses its income, a parent or spouse stops working to search for news of the person, children are left without parents.  La Prensa Grafica looked at the charges families must pay to keep their loved ones fed and with basic supplies of daily living.  Families are being charged $100-$300 a month by the prisons to deliver basic food, hygiene and cleaning kits to their relative in prison.   There is no accountability for these funds, and past years have seen numerous charges of graft and embezzlement from this system with inmates not receiving what their families have provided.     

How does the construction of CECOT, the new mega-prison, change this?  The truth is, very little.  CECOT is much more about appearances than it is about relieving over-crowding in the Salvadoran prison system.

Initially, all that was known about the new prison was what the Bukele regime announced on social media and on a nationally broadcast tour with the president.  The prison opened in February 2023, but it wasn't until 6 months later that some international press and El Salvador's PDDH entered the prison in a carefully choreographed event.    

Towards the end of 2023, these scripted media tours came to be open to more international print and media journalists as well as social media journalists.  The regime was anxious to show off the high security facility, with hundreds and hundreds of white-clothed, heavily-tattooed prisoners, to broadcast the appearance of a prison which was strict, but modern, clean and humane. Bukele granted a visit to CECOT to Luisito, a social media influencer, with millions of worldwide followers.  What followed was a propaganda piece for the State of Exception.

Tours are never granted to the other prisons in the system holding the vast majority of State of Exception prisoners.  But even traditional international news outlets like Univsion and the BBC could not resist the temptation to come and visit CECOT and fill their reports with superlatives like "largest,"  "most secure," and "most dangerous"  and repeating the assertion of the director of the prison that the human rights of the prisoners are respected. Neither media organization mentioned in their reports that the persons housed at CECOT are only a small portion of the country's prison population.    

Perhaps the most honest reporting on CECOT has been done by Salvadoran journalist Roberto Valencia.  On November 30, 2023, he published The oppressed neighbors of Bukele’s mega-prison where he visited communities surrounding CECOT in the municipality of Tecoluca.  For them, the prison has meant the contamination of the streams and rivers and underground aquifer because of the human waste of more than ten thousand prisoners and their guards being produced and discharged from CECOT:

Ever since they opened it, that river stinks, but it really stinks… the water stinks… -Fátima Alvarenga, a young farmer from the Cantarrana hamlet, one of the most affected by the shit coming from the prison, told me; I used to wash my clothes there, but now, I do it in the house.

Pollution is what most worries the neighborhood of Bukele’s mega-prison. Between today and tomorrow I will hear of dead cows from drinking from once crystalline rivers, of agricultural production undervalued in the markets, and of an unbearable stench. I will also hear heartfelt complaints about militarization, about arbitrary detentions, about the prison not even having become a source of employment, about telephone signal failures, about….

And everyone I will interview, all without exception, will tell me that they believe the worst is yet to come. The number of prisoners incarcerated is around 12,000, barely 30% of the announced capacity.

A month later, Valencia published La cena de Navidad en la megacárcel de Bukele (Christmas dinner in Bukele's mega-prison).  In it, Valencia not only shares the physical statistics of this massive facility (while noting it is only holding 12,000 inmates), but eats the food the inmates are served as he converses with several of them about their time inside.

The information Valencia gathered at CECOT -- that it only held 12,000 inmates as of Christmas Eve 2023 -- is important.  It means there are approximately 90,000 prisoners in the rest of the system, which had only a capacity for 27,000.  Enormous overcrowding, accompanied by cruelty and neglect, is the hallmark of the prisons of the State of Exception.     

A future post in this series will highlight the testimonies of some of those persons who were held for months within these prisons.  Their testimonies are powerful and provide a consistent picture of a prison regime which fails in every instance to respect the human rights of pre-trial detainees.  


Los responsables del sistema carcelario tienen en sus manos una bomba de tiempo que no saben qué hacer con ella.