On the remote plains of the Las Chiches volcano, the strongman leader of El Salvador has built a mega prison that is supposed to become the world’s biggest by population — and the most overcrowded by design.
President Nayib Bukele proudly opened the “new house” for 40,000 prisoners last month, where gang members will be sent to “live for decades” to pay for their alleged crimes.
The vast penal experiment, if it reaches full capacity, will be unrivalled in the scale of its incarceration — a facility that could accommodate two-thirds of Germany’s total prison population in one place.
But if Bukele sees through his plans, the prison will also have another unique and chilling feature: it will set records for deliberately designed overcrowding, according to Financial Times analysis of the complex using satellite imagery.
If it reaches the 40,000 capacity advertised by the government, each inmate will have just 0.6 square metres within shared cells, according to FT calculations. That is a fraction of what is expected for humane incarceration and less than half the minimum required under EU law to transport midsized cattle by road.
“Forty thousand is too many to manage in one place, period. Under any circumstances,” said Martin Horn, a retired administrator who ran New York City’s prisons, including Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest.
The alarming numbers raise the question of whether Bukele’s stated plans are more for show than real implementation. But few doubt his authoritarian tendencies, or willingness to push limits.
Videos of the first transfers showed hundreds of chained, half-naked men being crammed into tight, body-to-body formations, before being herded into the sprawling facility. Bukele shared the footage on Twitter to celebrate.
His security forces have detained 60,000 people in a year-long crackdown against gangs, which rights groups say has resulted in widespread abuses. Even before that, the country already had the world’s highest incarceration rate. Now experts estimate that more than 2 per cent of adults in the small Central American country of 6.3mn are likely behind bars.
Satellite images of the prison, known as the Terrorism Confinement Center, show the space inside the perimeter measures 23 hectares in total. That is far smaller than Rikers Island or Turkey’s Marmara mega prison, which are both larger than 100ha and have smaller populations.
The eight prison buildings measure just 10.7 acres, equivalent in size to six football pitches. Analysis of video footage suggests two of those are workspaces, leaving six accommodation buildings for inmates. Prison guards are housed in a separate building with leisure facilities, including a gym and table tennis.
Excluding corridors between cells, there remains less than 6 acres for the inmates, or just 0.6 sq metres per prisoner if the prison holds 40,000. Bunk beds provide some additional space but the total would be unlikely to exceed the arm span of a typical adult. Many prisoners will live in the facility for decades.
The Salvadoran government did not respond to a request for comment.
Even at a much lower occupancy rate, El Salvador’s mega prison would fall well short of established standards for humane treatment. The Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, recommends a minimum of 4 sq metres per prisoner in shared cells.
Bukele has relished casting the human rights of prisoners as a secondary concern. He says critics of his security policies are on the side of the gangs, and that his strategies have dramatically reduced murder rates.
Prison experts said the inhumane level of crowding would entrench a culture of criminality among those who are eventually released. “What we’re going to have is a gigantic prison that will become a small city of crime,” said Gustavo Fondevila of Mexico’s CIDE university.
“For me, it’s a political campaign project, the typical campaign project of pure, hard penal populism.”
Kavan Applegate, an architect who chairs the design committee for the International Corrections and Prisons Association, said the facility was simply “warehousing” people.
While the plans for the prison assume serious overcrowding, Bukele’s administration will provide minimal supervision to maintain order.
Security minister Gustavo Villatoro has said there would be more than 1,000 prison guards and 600 military personnel to guard the perimeter, while 250 police would run the towers.
At capacity, if there are 1,000 guards, that would mean a ratio of inmates to prison officers of about 40 to 1 before dividing them into shifts. That compares with about 4:1 in the UK and 8:1 in US federal prisons.
The extraordinary rise in El Salvador’s prison population has come as Bukele has attempted to crush the gang violence that has bedevilled his country.
The main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, have their roots in both the US and Central America. Salvadoreans fled violence during the country’s brutal civil war, particularly to Los Angeles, and some ended up in gangs. Once the war ended in the 1990s, the US deported many of them back to El Salvador.
In 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate peaked at more than 100 per 100,000 people, then the highest in the world, driven by the gangs who terrorised the public, controlling neighbourhoods, engaging in extortion and killing with impunity.
Since then, homicides have fallen, a trend that continued under Bukele. The murder rate was 7.8 per 100,000 in 2022, relatively low for Latin America, with even critical media outlets reporting that Bukele had broken up the gangs.
But several Bukele officials, including the head of the prison system, were placed under sanctions by the US for allegedly negotiating “a secret truce” with the gangs.
Bukele, the self-styled chief executive of El Salvador known for a symbolic gambit to make bitcoin legal tender, has made a show of appearing tough on crime. The 41-year-old, who shot to prominence as mayor of the capital San Salvador, is an avid social media user and once changed his Twitter bio to “The coolest dictator in the world”.
In April 2020 his security forces lined up hundreds of gang members stripped to their underwear and forced them to sit on the floor in long lines as a punishment for a jump in violence.
Bukele’s hardline approach to gangs has proved popular. He already has one of the highest approval ratings of any world leader — a challenge to advocates for democracy who fear that success will only embolden Bukele’s authoritarian instincts.
Bukele has already centralised power since taking office four years ago, upending a two-party system that had dominated since the end of its civil war in 1992. He controls a rubber stamp legislature, has replaced the entire supreme court with favourable justices and has vowed to run for re-election despite it being banned under the constitution.
“This is an autocracy in its truest sense, it’s one guy able to do whatever . . . he wants in his country,” said Steven Levitsky, David Rockefeller professor of Latin American studies at Harvard University and co-author of How Democracies Die.
He added: “It’s going to reinforce his basic message to the Salvadoran people that El Salvador’s democratic parties were part of the problem and that his authoritarian style is the solution.”
Additional reporting by Christopher Cook in London
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