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Even before COVID-19, El Salvador’s prisons were contagious disease hotspots. Here, MS-13 gang members with tuberculosis at Chalatenango prison, March 29, 2019. Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

Mass arrests and overcrowded prisons in El Salvador spark fear of coronavirus crisis

Governments around the world, from Brazil to the United States, are releasing some prisoners in an effort to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks in overcrowded prisons and jails. But not El Salvador.

Over the past month, thousands have been arrested and jailed for allegedly violating quarantine orders in this small Central American country.

El Salvador was one of the first countries in the Americas to declare a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, in mid-March. President Nayib Bukele announced a mandatory national quarantine with few exceptions.

At first, his decisive action had broad support. But Bukele’s use of police and soldiers to enforce coronavirus restrictions has led to criticism that the president is abusing his emergency powers to curtail civil liberties and undermine democracy.

A tough response to coronavirus

In April, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that the government lacked the legal authority to detain citizens indefinitely without suspicion of crime, despite the “extraordinary circumstances” presented by COVID-19.

In open defiance of the court, the administration has continued to arrest thousands, allegedly for violating quarantine, and send them to ad hoc “containment centers.”

National Civil Police enforce the coronavirus lockdown in historic downtown San Salvador, March 22, 2020. Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

The mass detentions put further stress on the country’s already overburdened penal system, creating conditions ripe for a public health crisis.

In 2018, a special observer sent by the United Nations described the conditions of El Salvador’s jails and prisons as “hellish.”

I used to visit MS-13 designated Salvadoran prisons on a weekly basis in the early 2000s, when I was in El Salvador and conducting research on the “war on gangs.” Even then I found conditions in these cinderblock warehouses to be harsh, with overcrowding and poor food.

Running water was hit or miss. Sometimes, inmates would go days without access to water, leaving them to drink only what they’d stored.

Starting in 2016, the government banned almost all visitors to and observers in these kinds of prisons, claiming it was necessary for security. Since then incarcerated life has become even worse, from the little that outside groups like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are able to document.

Explicit photos

Recently, though, amid the global pandemic, the world got an unexpected glimpse into El Salvador’s prisons.

On April 25, the Salvadoran government’s official press secretary tweeted out disturbing images of shirtless prisoners packed together like sardines – no chance of social distancing – hands cuffed behind their backs. Some had white surgical masks flapping uselessly. Many were unmasked.

The images were touting a government crackdown on incarcerated gang members intended as reprisal for a recent uptick in the murder rate. But the draconian treatment they revealed raised outcry among public health and human rights advocates.

To these chilling images, the Salvadoran prisons director Osiris Luna Meza added that cells would be sealed “without a ray of sun,” and promised to house members of rival gangs together in the same cells – a proposition almost certain to trigger violence.

Public enemy No. 1

Inflammatory rhetoric, punitive law enforcement and the public humiliation of gang members have become more common in El Salvador over my two decades of research on human rights and the rule of law in the country.

So-called “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies are politically popular in El Salvador and other Central American countries grappling with gang violence. For much of the past decade, El Salvador’s murder rate has ranked it among the world’s most dangerous countries.

But too often crime strategies allegedly meant to protect the public, like the recent mass arrests and the prison clampdown, create more problems than they solve.

Research shows that hard-line policing has actually exacerbated violence in El Salvador. According to a 2019 U.S. State Department report, Salvadoran police and soldiers given free rein to repress gangs have committed assault, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions.

Bukele, a young leader who took office last year, promised to “turn the page” on the country’s rough history. Instead, he has returned to these old authoritarian tactics.

A brewing crisis

Doing so during a global pandemic turns the country’s overcrowded prisons into a public health hazard.

El Salvador’s national prison system is built for approximately 18,000 inmates, and currently holds over 38,000, according to the World Prison Brief, a database on prison populations worldwide. This number does not include those arrested for curfew violation, who are crammed into local facilities.

Even before COVID-19, infectious disease spread rapidly among Salvadoran prisoners. According to a 2016 epidemiological study in El Salvador, infection rates for tuberculosis were at least five times greater in prisons than in the general population.

That same year, the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared that prison overcrowding violated prisoners’ basic human rights and ordered the government to release some people and build more facilities.

No chance of social distancing in El Salvador’s prisons. Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

Neither has happened. By 2017, journalist Sarah Maslin wrote in The Washington Post that one Salvadoran jail “had become a petri dish for outbreaks of scabies, pneumonia and tuberculosis.”

Human cost of an iron fist

The coronavirus outbreak makes infectious diseases in Salvadoran prisons an even more urgent concern.

Stuffing more people into overcrowded, unsanitary jails and prisons radically increases the risks for COVID-19 outbreaks. The disease inevitably spreads into broader society through prison staff and inmates who are released, according to recent analysis by data scientists published on Law 360.

Bukele says his government’s harsh security measures are necessary to “defend the lives of Salvadorans.” But now more than ever, such actions seem likelier to hurt the people they’re meant to protect.

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