Welcome to Hell: Inside El Salvador mega prison where 12,000 gang members are held… and plead for more food and medicine for the terminally ill dying around them

Over 12,000 suspected members of El Salvador’s most feared gangs have been confined to their cells in the notorious mega prison for a period of six months or longer.

In Tecoluca, the prisoners in CECOT’s vast Confinement Centre are desperately pleading with officials to provide medicine and food for those who are terminally ill and dying. The situation is dire, as terrorism is rampant in the center.

The prison is packed with an astonishing number of 12,114 prisoners, many of whom are bitter rivals from the two most feared gangs – 18 Calle and MS-13, showcasing how soldiers on foot can seize any opportunity to eliminate their enemies.

Approximately 75 infamously hazardous prisoners reside in metallic cabins and are compelled to share only two toilets and two sinks within every 100 square-meter cell.

They have no mattresses and they never get a chance to step outside into the fresh air. In addition, they are regularly tortured and beaten by the guards, which goes against human rights.

The chambers are empty, with sturdy steel bars dividing the alleged gang members from the heavily armed jail wardens.

When Andrés Guzmán, the Commissioner of Human Rights from El Salvador, visited the notorious prison that opened in January, he insisted that the inmates are respected beings with their human rights and are in good condition.

Human rights organizations have likened the prison conditions to concentration camps, drawing parallels to their use by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

A report by the human rights group Cristosal found that since President Nayib Bukele launched his merciless campaign against gangs, 174 inmates have been brutally killed and tortured in horrifically violent deaths.

During Guzman’s visit, Nelson Velásquez, 37, who has the tattoo ‘MS-13’ (Mara Salvatrucha) on his head, expressed, ‘As a child, people deceive you, sugarcoat it, and you make a mistake, but as you mature (…) You come to understand it.’

In the early 1980s, there were a total of 12,114 suspected gang members, mostly belonging to the violent Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs, who were born and raised on the streets. On February 24th, the prison with a capacity of accommodating 40,000 inmates, commonly referred to as the mega-prison, started receiving individuals.

Inside the first prison, many inmates proudly display tattoos etched onto their skin, showcasing bold Roman numerals of either 13 or 18, with pictures of their gang affiliation.

Within the boundaries of the correctional facility, it raises the query of how the El Salvadoran authorities anticipate thwarting the replication of the appalling brutality witnessed on the streets, given the significant number of rival gang members incarcerated together.

Velásquez, a prisoner in cell 13 of building 3, claims that he has already completed two terms for various offenses amounting to a combined duration of 15 years. However, presently he is awaiting a fresh trial while being dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts, with his hands restrained.

Dividing the cells, a courtyard strains the sun’s beams into skylight areas, offering organic airflow for the inmates with a curved ceiling in the penitentiary buildings.

Velásquez explains that the motion of the sun determines the rotation of the prisoners, ensuring that every cell receives sunlight.

José Hurquilla Bonilla, hailing from the Barrio 18 gang, articulates from within a prison cell, “In this place, we persistently strive each day with the sole purpose of transformation.”

From December 25 to March 27, 2022, a surge in violence resulted in the loss of 87 lives, prompting Bukele to request, with the approval of Congress, the confinement of a portion of the over 70,000 incarcerated gang members in the newly constructed prison.

The prison was constructed on a plot of land measuring 166 hectares, with 23 hectares allocated for the construction of eight pavilions. These pavilions are situated within a perimeter that is enclosed by an 11-meter tall concrete wall, spanning a length of 2.1 kilometers. To ensure security, the entire area is protected by electrified barbed wire.

During the visit to the prison, Commissioner Guzmán asked the inmates about the situation in their cells and they requested detergent and brooms for cleaning, but they mentioned that the most concerning issue is the lack of water.

Other inmates expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of food and demanded medication for those suffering from incurable diseases.

“Commissioner Guzmán addressed the inmates, expressing that there are multiple domains for enhancement and that a committed group labors assiduously on a daily basis.”

The report from Cristosal, the Human Rights NGO, denounced the state custody as a permanent form of repression and human rights violations, citing a record of 174 deaths during the first year of the emergency regime.

According to Guzmán at CECOT, detainees, within the overall boundaries of a correctional facility, are in satisfactory state and their human rights are upheld.

After talking with inmates from different cells, the Human Rights attorney, Raquel Caballero, said that the inmates complained about the food rations.

AFP informed Caballero that the individuals expressed dissatisfaction regarding the insufficient quantity of food and also mentioned that despite being liberated, they remain idle due to their confinement.

The incarcerated gang members, as stated by the official, ‘are conscious that their actions (crimes) have led them (to) this place.’

The attorney declared that a collective of 50 individuals in the healthcare industry, including both registered nurses and physicians, is delivering medical attention to the inmates.

A physician mentioned that ‘everyday’ water samples are collected and sent to a laboratory to ensure its quality.

In February, the CECOT began implementing a strict regime in which inmates are never allowed to receive visits from their families and are still not permitted to leave their cells. He says that the majority of Christians themselves have declared this fact as a reference, and the blessing goes by as time flows, similar to Velásquez and other inmates.

The opening of the prison comes as part of President Nayib Bukele’s clean up campaign to tackle the pride of two national gangs, with a brutal crackdown on violence.

In 2022, the number of homicides in El Salvador, which is often regarded as the murder capital of the world, decreased by 56.8 percent, resulting in an overcrowded prison with a capacity of 40,000, housing the country’s most perilous offenders, many of whom are involved in a longstanding conflict from opposing sides.

The historical issue of crime in El Salvador traces back to a civil conflict during the 1980s.

Conflict and hostilities, gang associations brought with them, returned those from El Salvador. Following the conclusion of the war, the MS-13 and Calle 18 gangs emerged on the streets of Los Angeles as Latin American Refugees sought refuge in America.

The influence of MS-13 has spread as their numbers grew. It is estimated that there are now around 65,000 members globally, while the number of members in Calle 18 is thought to have decreased from 70,000 to 50,000.

For many years now, numerous members from both sides have fought and died for a multitude of criminal activities, including abduction and blackmail, illicit money transactions, organized crime, illegal drug trade, and various sexual offenses, such as exploiting the dominance of Central America’s most influential gang.

In 2015, two young gang members from MS-13 shot him twice in the head and later threw him to the ground. The man, who owned a bus, refused to pay his $1 fee for extortion.

His son stated that his father was murdered due to $21.

The chief of another transport company had informed the New York Times in 2004 that 26 of his employees had been killed by gangs because they refused to pay.

The Mexican Mob and the Sinaloa Syndicate are in cahoots with MS-13, with formidable partnerships for each gang. Meanwhile, the Triads are among the associates of Calle 18.

Executions and extended physical assaults can lead to violating the codes, whereas harsh initiation rituals are required for potential members to endure. Gangs are recognized for their strict ‘moral’ codes as well as their brutality.

In unfavorable circumstances and locations, buses containing numerous passengers have been brutally attacked – simply by being in close proximity, and not only do enemy criminals, but also their associates, inflict ruthless revenge, causing harm to anyone who may be with them, including their entire families.

This can lead to a cycle of retaliatory murders, as additional individuals seek vengeance.

The enlistment of primary and secondary school students has acquired the moniker ‘the Children’s Army’ for Calle 18. To maintain their own innocence, senior members frequently utilize underage individuals to execute tasks – which may involve acts of violence.

In response, members of MS-13, who are suspected of killing children, have shown no reluctance when it comes to their bitter rivals for working.

Governments have been struggling to deal with the spilling violence across El Salvador, as it regularly appears at the top of the nations’ ranking charts for homicides, with a daily homicide rate of 18.2 in 2015.

Last year, President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency, suspending the legal rights of the council and increasing the time a person arrested can be held without charges among other powers claimed by the prison mega solution.