El Salvador’s mega-jail, billed as “the largest in the Americas,” features a high level of security and promises harsh treatment for 40,000 gang members detained as part of a “war” declared on them by President Nayib Bukele.
Built in a rural valley a short distance from the towering Chichontepec volcano in Tecoluca, some 74 km southeast of San Salvador, the Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo (CECOT) is noted for its rigorous entry controls.
The prison was built to hold part of the 62,975 gang members detained under an exceptional regime that was decreed by Congress at Bukele’s request, in response to an escalation of violence that claimed the lives of 87 people between March 25 and 27.
In order to build the prison, the State purchased 166 hectares, 23 of which were used to build eight pavilions within a perimeter surrounded by a concrete wall 11 meters high and 2.1 kilometers long, protected by electrified wire fences.
To enter the prison, inmates as well as security and administrative personnel have to reach registration areas before passing through three fortified gates controlled by security guards.
Each gang member who arrives, in addition to passing through a body scanner, will have to register in an entrance area where photographs will be taken.
Authorities have not informed when the transfer of gang members to the mega-prison will begin.
To make the prison autonomous, the Salvadoran Minister of Public Works, Romeo Rodríguez, declared that two wells were drilled, a 600 cubic meter water supply plant was installed, four cisterns were installed, and eight electric power substations were built.
In order to guarantee the electricity supply, the prison also has fuel-based emergency power plants. A wastewater plant was also built.
In front of the cellblocks, there is a control room to operate the water and electricity systems so that the inmates do not have the capacity to “manipulate” both services, explained the CECOT director, who prefers to remain anonymous.
The wards have a curved roof that guarantees natural ventilation for the inmates. The prison, which was built in a record time of seven months, involved 3,000 people and was supervised by a Mexican company.
Rigor in the cells
Each cell block has a construction area of 6,000 square meters, and in each of its 32 steel-barred cells, “more than one hundred” gang members will be housed, explained Minister Rodriguez.
The inmates have two sinks with running water for personal hygiene and two toilets in each cell, which is about 100 square meters in size.
Each cell also has iron sheet cabins without mattresses to sleep 80 people. In addition, in each cellblock there are dark, windowless “punishment cells” that will be used for misbehaving gang members.
“No patios have been built (…)recreation areas, nor conjugal spaces”, so the gang members will only leave the cell when they go to a room for their virtual judicial process.
The new prison will house members of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, which originated in the streets of the U.S. city of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. The main activities of these groups consist of extortion of individuals and businesses, contract killings and drug sales.