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El Salvador's Mega Prison, World's Largest, Aims At Gang Crackdown

This month, Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, unveiled his latest infrastructure project: a massive, “first-world” jail that could become the largest penitentiary in the world, with an alleged capacity to hold 40,000 inmates. This weekend, he announced the transfer of the first 2,000 prisoners to the new facility, reports the Washington Post. “A common-sense project,” Bukele called it. The unveiling of the prison came after he shared a 35-minute video of himself touring the facilities it was soon posted on his popular Twitter feed. He can be seen arriving at the jail in a caravan of black SUVs. “Welcome to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism, a key part in our battle against the gangs,” said Osiris Luna Meza, director of El Salvador’s penitentiary system. Bukele is shown X-ray machines, surveillance towers, and a fully staffed security perimeter. A “riot intervention squad,” armed to the teeth, salutes him. The tour then goes to the cells, meant to hold groups of “terrorists,” and the extreme solitary confinement area, where inmates will be kept completely in the dark — a widely condemned practice. “They won’t see any daylight, Mr. President,” Luna Meza, whom the U.S. government has placed on a list of officials suspected of corruption in El Salvador, told Bukele.


Spanning about 410 acres in an isolated region, the jail is the latest example of Bukele’s punitive state. It is slated to become the world's most overcrowded prison. The only images available come from the government. Because only a handful of foreign journalists have been granted access and given carefully arranged tours, claims of the jail’s readiness, layout, and operation have not been independently verified. The project’s finances have been kept secret. “Contracts were granted capriciously,” said reporter Jaime Quintanilla, who covers Bukele’s infrastructure projects. “Nuevas Ideas [Bukele’s party, which controls Congress] passed legislation that allows them to skip basic accountability.” For now, the ministry in charge of such projects has sealed any information on the construction of jails. There is no official information as to which companies were granted the likely lucrative contracts to build it, although two of Bukele’s preferred contractors were apparently favored. “No one knows how it was all financed,” said journalist Óscar Martínez, who runs the independent newspaper El Faro. “If, in terms of security, this is similar to a dictatorship, in terms of public spending, this is already a dictatorship.”

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