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Inside El Salvador's Mega-Prison Holding 12,000 Alleged Gangsters

inmate photo
Most inmates allegedly belong to either the Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street gang

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's relentless war on gangs is steadily filling the cellblocks of a massive prison that may be Latin America's largest.

inmate photo
Inside a cell at the Terrorism Confinement Center, widely known as the megaprison, in Tecoluca, El Salvador

At the complex in Tecoluca, southeast of the capital San Salvador, dozens of inmates with shaved heads peer out of a single cellblock.

Standing out among the omnipresent white T-shirts and shorts are some heads and necks covered in dark tattoos.

AFP joined government human rights officials this week in a rare tour of the prison, formally known as the Terrorism Confinement Center, almost exactly six months after its inauguration on February 24.

The massive prison has a capacity for 40,000 inmates, but now holds 12,114 accused gang members.

"We are persevering here day by day, trying to change with the help of our God," Jose Hurquilla Bonilla, a member of the Barrio 18 gang, said from inside a cell.

Humanitarian organizations have questioned the treatment of alleged gang members. The UN denounced that among the tens of thousands of detainees across the nation's prisons there are at least 1,600 minors.

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nmates in El Salvador's new mega prison peer out from a cell

The prison was built to hold some of the more than 72,000 alleged gang members detained under an emergency regime decreed in March 2022 by Congress at Bukele's request, in response to an escalation of violence that claimed the lives of 87 people in just three days.

Authorities accuse nearly all of the Tecoluca prisoners of belonging to the violent rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs with origins in the streets of Southern California four decades ago.

"When you are a child, anyone lies to you and sweetens you up, you fall into a mistake, and when you grow up... you realize it," says Nelson Velasquez, a 37-year-old prisoner who has "MS-13" tattooed on his head.

- Up to 75 inmates per cell -

Velasquez spoke during a visit to the facility by El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman, Raquel Caballero, and the country's human rights commissioner, Colombian national Andres Guzman.

Some 60 to 75 inmates live in each cell of about 100 square meters (1,000 square feet). They share two toilets and two sinks with running water for washing, as well as two containers with drinking water.

inmate photo
Largest prison in the Americas holds 12,000 after El Salvador war on gangs

With his hands bound, dressed like the rest of the prisoners in a T-shirt, shorts and a white mask, Velasquez said that he has already served two sentences for different crimes totaling 15 years, but now awaits a new trial.

The prison cellblocks have a curved roof to ensure natural ventilation for the prisoners, as well as skylights to illuminate a courtyard that separates the blocks.

Some inmates have gone free.

"To date, a few more than 7,000 have been released," Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said Tuesday.

To build the prison, the state bought 166 hectares (410 acres) of land.

Consisting of eight cellblocks, the complex is surrounded by a 2.1-kilometer (1.3-mile) concrete wall, which stands 11 meters (36 feet) high, in addition to electrified wire fences.

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