Last week, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele posted a typically divisive video on Twitter. To the sound of thrilling fast-paced music, it showed hundreds of detainees being transferred to a new “megaprison” officially named the Center for Confining Terrorism. Constructed last year to host the Central American country’s burgeoning prison population, it is the largest prison in the Americas, with capacity for 40,000 inmates.
The video, craftily edited with closeups of inmates’ tattoos combined with nighttime drone shots of the jail, went viral in the region, and won praise from far-right commentators in the US, like Infowars’ Harrison Smith and the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles. For many Salvadorean and foreign fans of the far-right president, the video represented the ultimate vindication of Bukele’s “iron-fisted” approach to fighting crime and restoring pride in the country’s armed forces.
But for human rights activists and pro-democracy groups, the video underlined the risks facing El Salvador’s democracy as state security takes priority over constitutional rights amid an indefinite state of emergency.
And for the closest observers of Bukele’s government, the timing of the released footage was most notable, coming 24 hours after a damning US indictment detailed how El Salvador’s government allegedly struck secret deals with infamous gang MS-13.
In the indictment unsealed Feb. 23, US attorneys accused members of Bukele’s government of masking themselves in order to secretly enter prisons in the country and conduct secret talks with MS-13 gang leaders.
The allegation – which also accuses the Salvadorean government of freeing an MS-13 gangster wanted for extradition by the United States – is contained in recently-released court documents related to the trial of several MS-13 members in a New York District Court.
While it does not name the government representatives alleged to have negotiated with gang, the indictment paints a damning picture of favors – including shorter prison sentences and more comfortable prison conditions – granted by Bukele’s government to one of the world’s bloodiest criminal gangs in exchange for help fulfilling his campaign promise to reduce murders in the country.
“In exchange, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador, by creating the perception that the government was reducing the murder rate,” the indictment alleges.
“In fact, MS-13 leaders continued to authorize murders where the victims’ bodies were buried or otherwise hidden,” it adds.
Salvadorean authorities did not answer CNN’s request for comment in relation to this article.
Bukele has cultivated a “tough-on-crime” image, imposing harsh policies on the rest of the population. In March last year, he suspended constitutional rights in the country, empowering Salvadoran security forces to jail citizens simply on suspicion of being part of a gang.
Incarceration figures have consequently soared. By mid-2022, up to 2% of El Salvador’s population 18 and older, or roughly 100,000 people, was in prison, according to an Amnesty international assessment based on local media reports.
According to government figures, more than 60,000 people were sent to prison since the state of emergency was declared – over 150 people per day – causing alarm among human rights activists, who say the rationale for some arrests is insufficient.
“The cases include people who were arbitrarily arrested because of their physical appearance, because they had a tattoo, because they were in a specific neighborhood, a specific time,” HRW Americas acting Director, Tamara Taraciuk, told CNN.
“There is no clarity or evidence that these people were actually committing a crime or implicated in this massive roundup. This poses a huge problem for public security.”
One of the highest concerns Taraciuk shared is that many inmates enter in close contact with criminal groups at the result of their detentions, as prisoners are held together in communal cells and that means that gangsters are presented with optimal conditions to recruit new members for the criminal syndicates.
Other human rights organizations have criticized the lack of judicial guarantees for the inmates, and according to local NGO Cristosal at least 80 inmates have died in unclear circumstances behind bars between March and October last year as the state of emergency was implemented.
In the light of the allegations of the US Department of Justice, who accuse officials of Bukele’s government of secretly negotiating a pact with the gangs while at the same time cultivating a reputation for pulling no punches in the war on crime, the violations of human rights are even more troublesome, activists say, because the hardship falls only on lower ranks of the criminal world while top brass were granted special treatment.
Still, Bukele enjoys a popularity most leaders around the world can only dream of. As of November last year, according to a poll by Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, 89% of Salvadoreans approved of their president, who has repeatedly dismissed the accusations of ruling by decree.
The 41-year-old leader has even seemed to embrace the controversy, describing himself on Twitter as “the world’s coolest dictator.”