SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador’s prisons are wretched, overcrowded hellholes, among the worst in Latin America, but for William Romero Cartagena a trip to prison would be a step up in life.
Romero is among 3,000 or so detainees currently housed in police station holding cells, unable to get remanded to one of the nation’s 19 prisons. The holding cells are even more crowded and ghastly than the prisons.
Romero, 23, was accused a few months ago of extortion. Since then he’s been held in a cell that measures no more than 9 feet by 9 feet. It contains 23 men. It has no toilet. Feces are passed out on a plate for removal.
On a recent day, Romero stood grasping the cell’s bars. Behind him were shirtless men, sitting or squatting. One inmate lay in a homemade hammock fashioned from plastic shopping bags.
“There’s no space here to sleep. Everybody has to just sit,” Romero said.
The precinct has four such cells, all equally crowded, for a total of 111 prisoners. In another cell containing accused members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, Godofredo Garcia Funes said he’d spent 22 months waiting for a chance to get to a prison. He said prisons, even with overcrowding, are better than the jammed holding cells.
“There’s more space there. You feel freer,” said Garcia, who is charged with murder but has yet to face trial. “We’ve asked for the transfer but they never do it.”
El Salvador’s penal system is in collapse. The prison overcrowding is of such magnitude that a State Department Human Rights Report issued in April described conditions as “harsh and life threatening.” It noted that at the end of 2012 the system had a capacity for 8,328 inmates but held more than three times that number – 27,038 inmates.
The police holding cells are at more than five times capacity. Built for 600 detainees, they held 3,400 in late August.
A McClatchy reporter recently visited both a prison and some police holding cells, witnessing the depth of the problem, which may be exacerbated by high levels of U.S. deportations of Salvadorans.
Since 2009, U.S. immigration officers have deported more than 32,000 Salvadorans. In 2011-2012, 14,733 of those deportees had criminal records. How many of those may have committed crimes once arriving in their homeland is not known.
Salvadoran society has little stomach for debate about building more prisons or alleviating overcrowding, especially if it involves higher taxes.
“Criminality has grown so rapidly,” said Roberto Canas, an economist and university professor who spent much of his adult life as a leftist insurgent before he joined other former rebels in signing accords that ended a civil war in 1994.
“People are fed up because they see few answers. That’s why you hear people talk about ‘final solutions’ and you have people who want to burn the prisons down,” he said.
Nonetheless, Canas said, “I wouldn’t wish for even my worst enemy to go to a (Salvadoran) jail or holding cell. Like the rings of Dante’s Inferno, they only differ in the kinds of torture offered.”
Violence erupted in El Salvador’s Tonacatepeque Prison only last week, when six inmates, two of them minors, were strangled to death in what appeared to be score settling between two major gangs, the larger Mara Salvatrucha and the rival 18th Street. The two gangs signed a truce in March 2012 but the truce may be crumbling, with gang-related homicides on the increase recently.
Pressured by the citizenry to get delinquents off the streets, law enforcement officers conduct continual operations, locking up ever more numbers of people.
“There are too many arbitrary roundups,” said Nelson Flores, coordinator of the citizen security and prison program at the Foundation for Studies on the Application of Law, a think tank and civil rights advocacy group in San Salvador. “They round up between 70 and 90 people a day. Most of them are charged with unlawful association,” a catchall charge usually brought against street gang members.
Neither Justice and Public Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo nor Prisons Director Rodil Hernandez agreed to written requests for an interview.
Perhaps because of huge death tolls from prison calamities in the region, the government of President Mauricio Funes last month announced plans to borrow $90 million to build a new prison, add on to the existing Izalco prison, expand two prison work farms and employ 4,000 electronic ankle bracelets to increase conditional release of inmates.
The plan has drawn skepticism from prison experts, who note that presidential elections loom in barely five months and that the Funes government leaves office in June 2014.
“In this environment, they won’t do anything,” said Benjamin Cuellar, a political analyst at the Human Rights Institute at the private, Jesuit-run Central American University.
Even with vast overcrowding, Salvadoran prisons have largely dodged the lethal mayhem at prisons in neighboring Honduras, where national Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodia says 435 inmates have died violently since the beginning of 2011, among them 326 prisoners killed in a prison fire Feb. 14, 2012.
As much as the Salvadoran prisons, it is the police holding cells that face the greatest strain. Perdomo told legislators earlier this month that police holding cells aren’t outfitted with adequate bathrooms or cooking facilities for detainees.
“Supposedly, they are to hold people only for 72 hours, (but) there are some who have been in there for five years,” the Prensa Grafica newspaper quoted him as telling legislators Sept. 16.
A deputy inspector at a police station in a San Salvador suburb allowed a reporter to visit the station’s four holding cells and speak to detainees. Journalists are barred from such visits, so the location of the station is being withheld.
The cells were crammed. Plastic water bottles and plastic bags of liquid soap hung from bars. Inmates crowded to look at a visitor. Most wore only boxer shorts or skivvies in the heat. Some bore gang tattoos. One cell was so crowded that detainees in homemade hammocks had to step carefully to avoid a body below.
To a journalist who’s visited prisons in seven Latin American countries, conditions seemed deplorable.
“It’s like going to a zoo and seeing monkey cages,” said Pedro Martinez, a lawyer with the Human Rights Institute.
The deputy police inspector said health problems are common.
“A few have skin rashes or fungus and tooth or bronchial infections,” he said.
The inspector said his precinct differed little from others: “There are no precincts that aren’t overcrowded with prisoners.”
Roughly half of El Salvador’s inmates are affiliated with the Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street, both of which originated in Los Angeles. Prisons and police lockups have become fertile recruiting grounds.
“People who aren’t gang members jump into the gangs in prison to survive,” said Martinez.
Contraband abounds, a sign that some corrupt guards permit visitors to carry in banned items. A raid on the Esperanza Prison Aug. 15 turned up 30 cellphones, three tablet computers, crack cocaine, marijuana and homemade liquor.
Most prisons fail to follow the law, which requires that convicted criminals be kept separate from suspects still awaiting trial. That means some of those awaiting trial spend years with hardened criminals. The result is that prisons have become universities of crime.
A female inmate at a women’s prison on the outskirts of San Salvador told of lengthy conversations with bank robbers, murders and kidnappers.
“You can’t help but think, ‘I didn’t do that. Maybe I should do that when I get out,’” said the inmate, who gave her name as Karla Rodriguez and said she was sentenced to a five-year term for extortion.
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