‘Mega prisons’ are increasingly popular in Latin America but are they a long-term solution?

Jun 22, 2024 | 0 comments

By Ellen Ioanes

Honduran President Xiomara Castro recently announced plans to build a “mega prison” capable of housing 20,000 people to manage the country’s crime problem.

It’s part of an increasingly popular proposition in Latin American countries — fighting drug trafficking and gang violence with harsh carceral measures — but it’s also a subversion of the rule of law and a human rights debacle that may not be a sustainable solution to the region’s problems.

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele claims to have found the solution to the region’s criminal enterprise problem in a massive prison and anti-gang initiative that has dramatically reduced the number of homicides there. And his policies are massively popular; he won reelection in a landslide earlier this year and now has a supermajority in the legislature. But his policies have also contravened the rule of law in the Central American country, ignoring individual civil rights and undermining democracy.

That hasn’t stopped a number of leaders across Latin America — from Ecuador’s banana-fortune-heir-turned-novice-politician Daniel Noboa to Chile’s progressive Gabriel Boric — from celebrating his approach or adopting parts of it.

One of El Salvador’s “mega prisons.”

Hondurans are desperate for a similar fix to the system of extortion, narco-trafficking, and violence that impacts their lives, and Castro has promised her new facility on Great Swan Island — coupled with additional measures to combat violence, such as further militarizing the police response to organized crime, legally classifying drug traffickers terrorists, and holding mass trials for suspects — will usher in a new era of safety.

Honduras is not El Salvador, however, and differences in the two countries’ political structure, legal systems, topography, and the criminal groups’ main source of revenue mean it’s not clear how successful Castro’s plans will ultimately be, either in minimizing crime or in sustaining her political popularity.

What’s more, hardline approaches that countries like Colombia and Mexico have implemented militarized approaches to gang and drug-related violence before — and not only have previous iterations of those approaches not worked, they’ve made the problem worse in the long run, causing the drug trade and gang violence to shift and grow without addressing underlying social problems that contribute to illicit activity.

What’s behind the Latin American super prison trend?
El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have long struggled to contain the brutal gang violence that has dominated daily life for decades. In El Salvador, extortion, kidnapping, murder, smuggling, and other brutalities have persisted, to some degree, since the late 1990s due to the social, economic, and political instability left by the civil war, which ended in 1992.

A prisoner inspection in El Salvador.

Many successive presidential administrations have adopted the mano dura, or “iron hand” tack, instituting harsh crackdowns to mitigate the violence.

In fact many Latin American countries attempted to stem drug- and gang-related violence using this iron-fist approach in the early 2000s — only to have it backfire and make the problem worse by causing criminal organizations to factionalize and then battle each other for dominance, as in Mexico under former Presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto.

But Bukele is on an entirely different level; he built a super prison capable of holding 40,000 people, and his administration has used it to imprison tens of thousands, many arbitrarily; repeatedly extended a state of emergency severely curtailing the rights of ordinary citizens; and attacked and even detained his critics in the press.

What’s also different about Bukele’s version of mano dura: It actually seems to be reducing gang violence and boosting his popularity, which inspires other leaders hoping to achieve his level of popularity (he won more than 80 percent of the vote in his unconstitutional 2024 reelection bid) — or at least hang on to power.

The Bukele phenomenon is spreading out across Latin America and for a president of a small Central American country, he has gained a huge stature across the subcontinent,” Juan Albarracín Dierolf, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told Vox. “And he’s recognized in public opinion, in ways that none of his predecessors were across different countries of the region.”

Bukele’s approach appears to have dramatically reduced homicides in his country and genuinely improved many people’s lives. “We are celebrating, thanking him, thanking God, for getting us out of this gang problem. We don’t want to go back to that horrible past,” voter Guadalupe Guillen told Reuters in February. “Democracy is not at risk because all the people have voted for him.”

Inmates at an Ecuador prison stand of the roof a prison guard tower during a riot in 2022.

But they come with high costs, ones that might ultimately undermine El Salvador’s security or stability in the long run. Press freedom in El Salvador is nonexistent, and the Bukele regime is not distributing statistics or any information about how the prisons are being managed or what efforts there are to actually bring criminals to justice and address some of the factors that contribute to organized crime, including a lack of education and economic opportunities, as well as the entrenchment organized crime within the power structure. The government has swept up about 76,000 people in its war on drugs, often without evidence. Many do not have access to attorneys and the government has denied them due process. Families have no idea when — or if — their loved ones will be released, and at least 40,000 children have been left without a parent due to the sweeping arrests. And multiple reports about human rights abuses, including torture and deaths in prison, have come out since Bukele instituted his anti-gang policies in 2022.

That hasn’t stopped other Latin American leaders, including Noboa in Ecuador, from following Bukele’s lead.

Ecuador has become a major hub for narcotics and a battleground for the armed groups trafficking them — and with that, the homicide rate has skyrocketed. The ongoing conflict recently culminated with massive armed battles in the prisons themselves, and perhaps most memorably armed gangs taking over a TV station and infiltrating and terrorizing other institutions. In response, Noboa launched an “internal armed conflict,” ordering the military to “neutralize” gangs, without worrying too much about human rights. He sent in the military to control the prisons, which had previously been run by the Los Lobos and Choneros gangs. Under Noboa, the gangs are now classified as terrorists, and the military, which has taken up a much more prominent role in policing, can consider them targets.

“While we don’t know yet how effective will Noboa be, he is following the steps that Colombia took 30 years ago to fight narcoterrorism [which had] a mixed record,” Renata Segura, head of the Latin America and Caribbean program at the International Crisis Group, told Vox.

Reports of human rights violations, including at least one extrajudicial killing and multiple arbitrary arrests, are already emerging. “It’s something which people are very aware of, very worried of, and particularly human rights organizations, civil society organizations are really scared of that, because they know what the war on drugs has meant elsewhere,” Guillaume Long, an analyst at the Center for Economic Policy and Research and former foreign minister of Ecuador, told Vox.

Now Honduras is fully embracing Bukele’s mano dura style policies as well. But as with Ecuador, its success in Honduras is far from certain — and concerns about civil liberties are already surfacing.

Why mano dura super prisons may not quash Latin America’s gang problem
Castro’s use of mano dura techniques isn’t new: She temporarily suspended parts of the constitution meant to protect against arbitrary detention as well as freedom of movement and assembly — implementing what’s known as a state of exception — in 2022, arguing that doing so was necessary to stop crime.

Her latest announcement is “another step away from the agenda that Xiomara first promised, which included focus on community policing, demilitarization, [and] prevention,” according to Andreas Daugaard, a research coordinator at Honduras’s Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa, and it comes amid questions about the effectiveness of the policy. “The government started advancing that agenda in early 2022 by dismantling the anti-gang military police force (FNAMP) and removing military from prisons, yet less than one year in, extortion rates started rising.”

While there is certainly drug trafficking in Honduras, extortion is also a major problem, with gang members draining victims of both hard cash and via digital means. There’s little reliable data about the economic effects of extortion, but it has infiltrated the transit sector and devastated thousands of small businesses in the past.

Corruption is deeply intertwined with the political class in the country; multiple former government officials have been implicated in corruption scandals, and Castro herself has been accused of consolidating her power by putting family members and close associates in government positions.

But Castro has already faced roadblocks with the mano dura policies she has put in place, unlike Bukele.

“Bukele has been able to effectively reduce violence through authoritarian measures because he has full control of the main state institutions, including Congress and the courts,” Segura said. “In places with real checks and balances, it is unlikely that these types of operations would work. That has been the case, in fact, in Honduras. Castro declared [a] state of exception last year, and it did little to reduce the purported reason for it: extortions.”

In fact, the Honduran government touts that 32,000 people have been arrested so far, but approximately 95 percent of them had to be released because of a lack of evidence.

Partly because of these failures, and partly because of Bukele’s massive popularity both in El Salvador and across the region, Daugaard surmises that — to show voters she’s taking action — Castro will build the prison, which is a one-day boat ride away from the mainland and communication is only possible via satellite.

Though Bukele’s policies are popular, they are likely not sustainable, in El Salvador or elsewhere, Albarracín said. “In many places, it’s a very desperate security situation —  it’s hard to understand what it means to live under these circumstances. So in comes someone who says, ‘I’m going to do something,’ and does something quite immediate and visibly. So that’s kind of the charm of these policies. They’re very visible.”

Castro has not outlined how this new prison will overcome systemic issues that have plagued the country’s existing carceral system. As Daugaard explained, “they already have several maximum security prisons, and the problem there was not the physical installations, but corruption of those in charge — how will they ensure that the new people in charge are not corrupt?”

Also at issue is the fact that prisons and militarized police forces are expensive to maintain long-term, even if they appear to work in the short term: As it is in a remote location, Honduras’s super prison “will have a huge impact on wildlife and environment [and] it will be super expensive to move food, materials and people back and forth,” Daugaard said.

There are alternatives to mano dura — “Colombia’s Paz Total is the opposite model to Bukele (trying to negotiate with the armed and criminal groups to reduce violence and eventually demobilize the groups),” Segura said. But the strategies that could lead to a long-lasting, sustainable reduction in violence often take a long time and don’t produce exciting visuals like those Bukele and Castro have circulated in support of their policies.

“Increasing the capacity of states to really prosecute — with the rule of law — criminals, the capacity to have better intelligence of how organized crime works, and how to dismantle it,” are likely more effective over time than merely imprisoning thousands of people without trial, Albarracín said.

Perhaps even more important, Albarracín told Vox, is building “the capacity of the state to punish and sanction state officials [who] are engaging in these types of agreements with criminal groups,” as was successfully implemented in Guatemala from 2007 to 2019, and the legacy of which arguably helped anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arevalo to be elected president this year.

These kinds of policies don’t offer immediate relief, and they often threaten powerful political interests. But they’re necessary to protect civil rights, build lasting security, and break the destructive and authoritarian mano dura cycle.
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Credit: Vox

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