El Salvador’s Secretive Mega-Jail


BBC - TRANSCEND Media Service

BBC World Service

14 Jul 2023 – Angelica already had a hunch where her missing husband, Darwin, was. But official footage, shared by the government and uploaded on to social media, confirmed her suspicions.

Painstakingly scrolling through it, frame by frame, she spotted him 25 minutes into the footage, shaking hands with his cellmate. She pressed pause, rewound, and examined the footage again.

Though his head was shaved, and he was wearing nothing except regulation white shorts, she had no doubt that this person was Darwin, whom she had not seen since his arrest 11 months previously.

New York Post

This was her first evidence that he had been transferred to El Salvador’s notorious mega-jail, Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (Cecot), which was opened in Jan 2023 by the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, in Tecoluca, 74km (46 miles) south-east of the capital San Salvador.

Cecot has become a symbol of President Bukele’s notorious “war against gangs”, which the country’s ministry of security says has resulted in the detention of at least 68,000 people since the campaign began in March 2022.

There are thousands of Salvadorans who have not heard from their detained relatives for months, and who, like Angelica, look for them in videos, photographs, or – in the case of those whose loved ones are in lower security jails – by peeking through small holes in prison walls.

But President Bukele’s state of emergency, in a country which had become one of the most violent in the world, is very popular domestically. In a CID Gallup poll of 1,200 citizens in January, 92% of those polled said they had a “favourable opinion” of their leader.

Atlas News

His approval is largely fuelled by the drastic drop in recorded murders since his administration took office. Many Salvadorans stress this change, especially in neighbourhoods previously controlled by gangs which sought to intimidate the local population with the motto: “See, hear, shut up”. Now residents can cross gang borders without harassment or fear of retaliation.

El Salvador’s government says Cecot can hold up to 40,000 prisoners who will exclusively be high-ranking members of two rival gangs – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 – whose warfare led to decades of terror and bloodshed in El Salvador.

The BBC has been repeatedly denied access to Cecot, but has recreated details of the jail using videos and photos shared by the government, and media outlets who were given access to the prison before it opened; interviews with Salvadoran officials; and documents shared with us by an engineer – on condition of anonymity – who was involved in the prison’s construction.

Gang members wait to be taken to their cell after 2000 gang members were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, according to El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, in Tecoluca, El Salvador, in this handout distributed to Reuters on March 15, 2023.


Cecot – Government of El Salvador

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One Response to “El Salvador’s Secretive Mega-Jail”

  1. PanatomicX says:

    How is “… the drastic drop in recorded murders …” a problem? Did Angelica’s husband not receive a fair trial? Is it a terrible thing that imprisoned gangsters can’t communicate with outside gang members through family members?

    Gangs are hierarchical organizations that claim & defend territories, mete out justice, have standing armed forces—earmarks of states-within-the-state. In addition, they perpetrate socially destructive crimes—dealing in drugs, kidnapping, human trafficking, murder, fraud, corruption & more.

    If the actions of gangs were interpreted as the acts of treason that they are, penalties for participating in gang activities would be far worse.