Behind bars: Thousands of criminals, including notorious MS-13 gang members, start filling new 'mega prison'
El Salvador has started to fill its mega-prison with a transfer of 2,000 gang members and criminals, including members of MS-13 and Barrio-18.
"Today at dawn, in a single operation, we transferred the first 2,000 gang members to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT)," El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele wrote on Twitter. "This will be their new home, where they won't be able to do any more harm to the population."
Bukele also posted a video on Twitter that showed prisoners, bound by shackles at their ankles and with hands behind their backs, running into the new facility. The prisoners wore white shorts and had shaved heads, with many men bearing gang tattoos.
The prisoners can be seen sitting tightly packed together on the floor of the facility with their hands behind their heads while they stare down at their feet.
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The new 40,000-person facility opened last month after an accelerated building schedule, doubling El Salvador’s prison capacity in less than a year. The prison is one of Latin America’s largest, with 37 guard towers and eight cellblocks that will be "impossible to escape."
Bukele declared a "state of exception" in March 2022 as he empowered his government to crack down on gang members by loosening the country’s arrest laws, such as no longer requiring a warrant for an arrest and granting the government access to citizens’ communications.
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He pushed through the new measure following three days of violence left 87 people dead. Bukele blamed MS-13 for the violence, and authorities claimed that they had captured the MS-13 leaders who had ordered the killings, during the statewide sweep.
U.S. prosecutors have connected MS-13 to dozens of murders in the New York metro area and Long Island over the past decade, with terrorism charges announced against 14 of the gangs' leaders in 2021, The New York Times reported.
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El Salvador’s congress extended the state of exception several times, resulting in more than 46,000 arrests of alleged gang members. That number surged to over 62,000 by the end of the year, including alleged collaborators.
A poll by Cid Gallup last year found that 91% of those surveyed supported the more aggressive crackdown, Bloomberg reported.
But human rights organizations argue that innocent people have been caught up in the policy, including at least dozens who have died in police custody.
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One woman told The Guardian that her husband, brother and nephew were arrested a week ago while unloading a truck for their business, and police have not yet explained why they were taken into custody.
Reuters contributed to this report.