Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Prisons Out of Control

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 17 2008 (IPS) - The murder of eight inmates in two prisons in El Salvador has once again drawn attention to the serious problems plaguing the prison system, such as severe overcrowding, a lack of rehabilitation programmes and the housing of pretrial detainees with convicted criminals.

The state is unable to guarantee the safety of prisoners because it lacks effective control over prisons, said experts consulted by IPS.

On Mar. 5, five members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) youth gang were murdered in different wings of the Chalatenango prison, in the northern province of the same name. The penitentiary holds 800 prisoners, all of whom belong to the MS.

The victims had been transferred over the last few months from the penitentiary in Cuidad Barrios, 150 km northeast of San Salvador, where on Mar. 9 three other prisoners, also members of the MS, were stabbed to death. A few months earlier, the three had been transferred from Chalatenango.

The Ciudad Barrios prison holds 1,800 inmates, all of whom belong to the youth gang.

In April and May 2007, IPS visited both prisons and witnessed the extreme overcrowding.

While internal power struggles between different “cliques” in the gang might be behind the murders, it should not be forgotten that the killings occurred “basically because of the overcrowding,” the “lack of rehabilitation programmes” for prisoners and the deplorable conditions in the country’s jails, said Nelson Flores, coordinator of the Penal Studies Centre (CEPES) in the Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law. (FESPAD).

Flores, who visited the Chalatenango prison in December, told IPS that the overcrowding also fuels the spread of illnesses like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

At night, the floor of the cells is covered with “human rugs,” because the prisoners sleep on the floor, some of them right next to the few, and overflowing, toilets, said Flores.

The inmates and their families are also mistreated by the prison authorities, he said.

Minister of Public Security and Justice René Figueroa told the press that the deaths of the prisoners, who were serving time for homicide, were the result of “internal purges” in the MS and that authorities were making “a bigger effort to keep the situation under control.”

Four new prisons will open in the next few months, which will ease the overcrowding, said Figueroa.

The authorities blame two powerful youth gangs, the MS and Mara 18, for a large part of the extortions, robberies, drug distribution and hired killings in this Central American country.

But the participation of gang members was only proven in 12 percent of the murders that came to trial in 2006.

The MS and Mara 18, which are deadly rivals, have carved up between them large areas that are under their control, especially in slum neighbourhoods.

The two gangs originated in California in the 1980s, after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, California where gang violence was rife.

The gangs, or “maras”, began to spread to Central America in the 1990s, when most of their leaders were deported from the United States. They are also active in Honduras and Guatemala.

According to Alberto Uribe, spokesman for the Dirección General de Centros Penales, the prison service, as of early March the country’s 19 prisons, designed for a total capacity of 7,500 inmates, housed 18,300 adults, of whom over 5,000 belong to the MS and Mara 18.

In addition, 2,000 minors under the age of 18 are held in four juvenile detention centres in different regions of this country of 6.9 million.

The prison system suffers from a “lack of effective controls,” which facilitates the entry of drugs into prisons, often with the complicity of prison guards, said juvenile court Judge Aída de Escobar.

She also said that crimes like extortion and murder are planned and ordered from prison cells.

And because many suspects who have not yet been tried are held in pretrial detention alongside convicted criminals who are serving their sentences, “more ruffians are being created,” de Escobar told IPS.

There are people who go to jail “for a case of minor theft and turn into murderers,” she said.

A 2007 FESPAD report states that there are 207 prisoners per 100,000 population in El Salvador. That figure compares to 700 per 100,000 in the United States, 95 in Italy, 80 in France and 65 in Sweden.

The skyrocketing of the prison population, from just over 12,000 in 2004 to 18,300 today, is due mainly to the “mano dura” or hard-line policy against crime that has led to the incarceration of large numbers of gang members but failed to bring the soaring crime rates down, say experts.

They also argue that a 2001 reform of article 103 of the penitentiary law violated the basic rights of prisoners.

The amended law made it possible to create special prison regimens for many inmates, including long-term isolation, restricted movement within the prison, limited telephone access and only no-contact family visits in the presence of a guard.

De Escobar also noted that the maximum sentence was increased from 30 to 75 years, which contributed to expanding the prison population.

Prisoners in El Salvador are overwhelmingly poor, while white-collar criminals receive special treatment and are held in police station cells.

The state “should not close its eyes to this situation,” said the judge, who pointed out that prison authorities are legally obligated “to guarantee the safety of prisoners.”

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