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

Salvadoran Prisons – Hubs of Organised Crime

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 2 2010 (IPS) - Decades of government neglect, a corruption-racked penitentiary system and a growing wave of violent crime have combined to move El Salvador’s prisons even further away from their stated purpose of rehabilitation while strengthening their role as veritable schools of crime.

According to government figures, around 80 percent of all cases of extortion in El Salvador are coordinated from jail by cell-phone, thanks to a well-oiled network of suppliers of phones, chips and chargers, inmates and their families, and prison guards.

In one such case, in March 2009 the prosecutor’s office charged Darwin Ticas, an inmate serving a 30-year sentence for homicide, with running an extortion racket involving 11 people from his cell. The scheme, which operated in the eastern city of San Miguel, included members of his family.

Extortion is not the only crime ordered from prison cells. Kidnappings and murders are also planned, usually by convicts belonging to the Salvatrucha and M18 gangs, the two leading street gangs in Central America.

The crimes orchestrated from prison contribute to the soaring violence that has been tearing apart Salvadoran society.

This Central American country of 7.2 million people is one of the most violent countries in the world, with an average of 12 homicides a day and a rate of 71 murders per 100,000 people.

“We have police reports of inmates ordering kidnappings, from inside the Zacatecoluca prison, since 2005,” the head of the prison system, Douglas Moreno, told IPS.

Although the prison in the central region of Zacatecoluca is a maximum-security facility, that hasn’t prevented cell phones from being smuggled in, with the cooperation of the guards.

No matter how many search and seizure operations are carried out by the prison authorities, chips and cell phones are inevitably found on prisoners. Last August, 14,000 illegal objects were found, including 1,306 cell phones, 1,317 chips, and over 400 rechargeable batteries.

The local press has reported numerous cases of women — girlfriends, wives and relatives of the inmates — smuggling in chips in their anal or vaginal cavities.

More than 90 guards have been sacked in the last few months, and the purge will intensify in December, Moreno said.

In an unprecedented measure, the government of left-wing President Mauricio Funes has called in the army to patrol the perimeters of some penitentiaries, in an attempt to curb the influx of telephones and drugs, which are sometimes thrown in bags over the prison walls.

El Salvador’s prisons have been neglected by the government for decades, in the belief that spending money on “criminals” is not a productive investment.

This neglect is behind the current chaos in the prison system, which is fuelled by extreme overcrowding. Originally designed to hold 8,110 prisoners, the country’s jails presently house 24,000 inmates –300 percent over capacity.

According to a preliminary report on El Salvador issued Oct. 20 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, “This high lockup rate in turn produces other situations, such as the worsening of detention conditions and insufficient access to re-education and training programmes essential for social reintegration.”

The country’s prisons are also rife with riots.

Overpopulation, facilities in deplorable conditions, inadequate food, insufficient water supplies, and scarce reinsertion programmes, along with soaring crime rates, have made rehabilitation impossible in prisons, which are instead only serving to reproduce the cycle of criminality.

“If inmates are idle, if they have nothing to occupy themselves with, if they have no reinsertion options, no space for private visits, and are surrounded by people with bad habits, they will be more likely to commit crimes,” human rights ombudsman Oscar Luna told IPS.

Criminal activities orchestrated from prison are also a problem in other countries of Latin America.

In Mexico, the newspaper Milenio reported in August that inmates at the Centro de Readaptación Social in Gómez Palacio, in the western state of Durango, were operating as hit men using the guards’ guns to control drug trafficking inside the prison.

Citing sources from Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, the newspaper stated that “60 percent of municipal jails and social re-adaptation centres were controlled by drug traffickers, who have hired gunmen working for them.”

Organised crime groups such as Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel and La Familia Michoacana control prisons in the states of Quintana Roo, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Tabasco, Mexico, the Federal District, Tamaulipas, Baja California, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Chihuahua and Durango.

Drug wars in penitentiaries crammed with violent prisoners linked to organised crime tend to end in deaths. According to Department of Public Safety statistics cited by Milenio, 200 inmates were killed, 507 injured and 142 escaped between September 2008 and December 2009.

Brazil is another case in point: 75 of the 180 prison complexes in São Paulo are controlled by criminal gangs, according to César Barros Leal, head of the country’s Human Rights Institute.

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