The El Salvador diaries: The psychology of mass incarceration

In its efforts to ensure “no type of crime” is tolerated in El Salvador, the Bukele regime itself is committing one big crime.

Salvadoran prisoners, in their underwear, are seen during a search in a prison.
Salvadoran inmates are seen during a search by security teams in the prisons of Quezaltepeque, in the department of La Libertad, in El Salvador on March 28, 2022 [Handout/Presidency of El Salvador via Anadolu Agency]

On May 17, Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the head of El Salvador’s National Civil Police, took to Twitter to broadcast the news that “more than 31,000 terrorists” had thus far been “captured” since the inception of the national state of emergency at the end of March.

The state of emergency was occasioned by a surge in homicides following a collapse in negotiations between Salvadoran gangs and members of the administration of President Nayib Bukele, including Carlos Marroquín, the director for the reconstruction of social fabric.

Before the latest “terrorist” roundup, El Salvador already boasted a prison population of about 39,000; as of October 2021, the diminutive country had the fourth-highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world (first place goes to – who else? – the United States). Now, under the ongoing state of emergency, the Bukele regime has spontaneously enacted a “special law” paving the way for the rampant construction of new jails. After all, locking up poor young men is clearly a better way to reconstruct El Salvador’s “social fabric” than, say, offering options for economic survival that would allow folks to refrain from joining gangs in the first place.

As with any good “war on terror”, there has been plenty of collateral damage. Among the 31,000-plus captured “terrorists”, for example, was 21-year-old musician Elvin Josué Sánchez Rivera, who was interned in early April at Izalco prison northwest of the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. When he died a few weeks later, his family was first told that the cause of death had been coronavirus.

This was subsequently amended to “hypertension” and “sudden death”, and the family’s request for an autopsy was refused in spite of – or because of – bruises and other signs of abuse on Sánchez Rivera’s body. As of May 17, nine inmates had reportedly perished at Izalco prison alone since the state of emergency kicked off in March.

I arrived in El Salvador in mid-April for a one-month stay. Shortly after my arrival, I had the opportunity to speak with a Salvadoran psychologist in his mid-thirties – we’ll call him Julio – who had himself been swept up in Bukele’s mass detention frenzy and had spent six days in a jam-packed cell at San Salvador’s endearingly dubbed “El Penalito”, or “little prison”. As the New York Times notes, El Penalito “has become ground zero for perhaps the most aggressive police crackdown in the Central American country’s history”.

When he was admitted, Julio told me one April afternoon over giant beers, his cell contained some 55 other men and boys, which rendered it impossible to move and meant that he spent his first night in prison standing up. The toilet was a hole in the ground, into which water was poured – whenever there happened to be water, that is.

His fellow inmates ranged from tattooed gang members to an 84-year-old deaf man, a 16-year-old boy, and a number of street vendors who had apparently been scooped up from the downtown area and hastily tagged as gang associates – which is certainly one way to deal with surplus people who are interfering with the government’s vision of a “revitalised” city centre that will appeal to the Bitcoin investor crowd and other international visitors. It is also a handy trick in terms of fulfilling daily detention quotas imposed on police in accordance with the state of emergency and the need to keep bellicose momentum up.

On account of his fair skin and obvious relative socioeconomic privilege, Julio said, various inmates initially pegged him as a police informant, but the gang member in charge in the cell took a liking to him, and even lent him a pair of shorts to compensate for the jailers’ decision to incarcerate him nude. This gang member also looked out for the 84-year-old and the 16-year-old, oversaw the division of food at mealtimes so that everyone got to eat, and – once some of the men had been transferred out of the cell – devised a sleeping arrangement that entailed having other people’s feet in your face but that at least saved you from having to remain vertical for 24 hours a day.

Julio was first nicknamed “Tarzan”, then “Aquaman”, and finally “El Profe” – “The Teacher” – when he undertook to instruct the others on physical exercises that could be performed within the confines of the cell. His tales of regular surfing excursions on the beaches of El Salvador elicited the interest of his cellmates, many of whom had never seen the sea despite the country’s ample coastline.

Already acutely aware of his privilege, he thus became even more so, and began thinking – he told me – that it would be fine if he died in jail, as he had enjoyed more than his fair share of opportunities on earth. Some of the other men shared tidbits of their own personal histories, which tended thematically towards family members who had been killed or raped. In the end, life is cheap in El Salvador – and it is the poor who pay the price.

Julio attributed his quick release from El Penalito to his “whiteness” – a signifier of social class, as well – and reckoned that, had he not been so “white”, his family would never have heard from him again. Prior to his liberation, he witnessed a perfunctory visit to the prison by representatives of El Salvador’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, an institution firmly in the pocket of Bukele – whose own approach to human rights consists of continuously mocking the very concept on Twitter.

Addressing one of the human rights representatives through the bars of the cell, Julio had urged the man to put the abusive conditions in perspective: “How would you feel if your child was in here?” According to Julio, the response was: “That’s why I don’t have children,” followed by some remarks on the unpleasant odor emitted by the jailed population.

Of course, since gang members are relentlessly portrayed as savage and inhuman by nature, it is easier for the Salvadoran government to justify denying them human rights – ditto for 84-year-old men and anyone else who happens to be ensnared in the whole hunt for “terrorists”. The bombastic demonisation of a significant section of Salvadoran society also handily distracts from the inhumanity of neoliberalism itself, which thrives on the perpetuation and imprisonment of misery – just like in the United States, the superpower that has long backed right-wing oppression in El Salvador and that is largely to thank for spawning the gang phenomenon.

And while it should not take a psychologist to realise that gang members are human, too, it is not in the government’s interest to acknowledge that there is a concrete politico-socioeconomic explanation for the existence of gangs – and that they are a byproduct rather than a cause of a fundamentally violent system. Conveniently, another new law that sped through the Salvadoran parliament in April ambiguously criminalises sharing information about gangs, which means that any substantive discussion of Salvadoran reality has been effectively outlawed.

In Julio’s case, his prison stint no doubt offered profound opportunities for auto-psychoanalysis – not to mention psychological evaluation of a deranged regime and its imprisonment-based war on poverty. When I met him for beer, he was still visibly traumatised, fretting about being out after dark and the possibility of encountering police checkpoints on the road.

On May 4, Bukele tweeted imperiously that, in El Salvador, “no type of crime” would be tolerated. But as the state of emergency drags on – dismantling countless lives in the process – it all amounts to one big crime.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.