SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- El Salvador’s prisons are wretched, overcrowded hellholes, among the worst in Latin America, but for William Romero Cartagena a trip to prison would be a step up in life.
Romero is among 3,000 or so detainees currently housed in police station holding cells, unable to get remanded to one of the nation’s 19 prisons. The holding cells are even more crowded and ghastly than the prisons.
Romero, 23, was accused a few months ago of extortion. Since then he’s been held in a cell that measures no more than 9 feet by 9 feet. It contains 23 men. It has no toilet. Feces are passed out on a plate for removal.
On a recent day, Romero stood grasping the cell’s bars. Behind him were shirtless men, sitting or squatting. One inmate lay in a homemade hammock fashioned from plastic shopping bags.
“There’s no space here to sleep. Everybody has to just sit,” Romero said.
The precinct has four such cells, all equally crowded, for a total of 111 prisoners. In another cell containing accused members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, Godofredo Garcia Funes said he’d spent 22 months waiting for a chance to get to a prison. He said prisons, even with overcrowding, are better than the jammed holding cells.
“There’s more space there. You feel freer,” said Garcia, who is charged with murder but has yet to face trial. “We’ve asked for the transfer but they never do it.”
El Salvador’s penal system is in collapse. The prison overcrowding is of such magnitude that a State Department Human Rights Report issued in April described conditions as “harsh and life threatening.” It noted that at the end of 2012 the system had a capacity for 8,328 inmates but held more than three times that number – 27,038 inmates.
The police holding cells are at more than five times capacity. Built for 600 detainees, they held 3,400 in late August.
A McClatchy reporter recently visited both a prison and some police holding cells, witnessing the depth of the problem, which may be exacerbated by high levels of U.S. deportations of Salvadorans.
Since 2009, U.S. immigration officers have deported more than 32,000 Salvadorans. In 2011-2012, 14,733 of those deportees had criminal records. How many of those may have committed crimes once arriving in their homeland is not known.
Salvadoran society has little stomach for debate about building more prisons or alleviating overcrowding, especially if it involves higher taxes.
“Criminality has grown so rapidly,” said Roberto Canas, an economist and university professor who spent much of his adult life as a leftist insurgent before he joined other former rebels in signing accords that ended a civil war in 1994.
“People are fed up because they see few answers. That’s why you hear people talk about ‘final solutions’ and you have people who want to burn the prisons down,” he said.
Nonetheless, Canas said, “I wouldn’t wish for even my worst enemy to go to a (Salvadoran) jail or holding cell. Like the rings of Dante’s Inferno, they only differ in the kinds of torture offered.”
Violence erupted in El Salvador’s Tonacatepeque Prison only last week, when six inmates, two of them minors, were strangled to death in what appeared to be score settling between two major gangs, the larger Mara Salvatrucha and the rival 18th Street. The two gangs signed a truce in March 2012 but the truce may be crumbling, with gang-related homicides on the increase recently.