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Latam Brief: El Salvador opens “megaprison” (February 27, 2023)

 Latin America Daily Briefing
Latin America Daily Briefing

El Salvador inaugurated its “megaprison,” the 40,000 prisoner capacity ‘Terrorism Confinement Centre’ (Cecot), on Friday, with the transfer of 2,000 alleged gang members. President Nayib Bukele shared images of prisoners — shirtless, in white shorts and with shaven heads — running into the new facilities, which are a critical tool in the administration’s ongoing crackdown on the country’s street gangs. (Reuters)

Cecot was constructed in a record seven months, in about 410 acres of an isolated region of El Salvador, 74 km from San Salvador. Little is known other than the official images shared by the government. It is comprised of eight buildings, with 32 cells of about 100 sq meters, which will each hold 100 prisoners. The cells only have two sinks and two toilets each. (BBC)

The “latest example of Bukele’s punitive state” will be one of the largest and most overcrowded prisons in the world, explains León Krauze in the Washington Post. Nobody knows how it was financed, though two of Bukele’s favorite contractors were likely favored for the construction.

“This new mega prison is a symbol of Bukele’s mad security policies,” Human Rights Watch’s Juan Pappier told Washington Post, questioning the timing of the transfer just after the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against alleged MS-13 gang leaders that accuses senior Salvadoran officials of negotiating with criminal groups to curb violence.

The struggle to control the narrative is broader: the Bukele administration is basking in the apparent success of its iron fist security policies — more than 64,000 people have been arrested in 11 months of a state of emergency that suspends constitutional guarantees — while critics say improvements are also related to government negotiations with gang leaders.

More El Salvador

  • The case of José Alfredo Grande Martínez, a 45-year-old bricklayer arbitrarily arrested, but still in detention after nine months, is emblematic of the human rights violations of Bukele’s security policies — El Faro.

  • Irina Carlota Silber’s second book, After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador, is a meditation on ethnography, politics, and El Salvador’s post-insurgent generation — Nacla.

Mexicans protest INE reform

Tens of thousands of Mexicans marched against reforms to the country’s National Electoral Institute (INE). Demonstrators called on the Supreme Court to halt the changes passed by Congress last week. Protesters overflowed in from Mexico City’s Zócalo Square, and marched in at least 85 other cities around the country. (Aristegui NoticiasAnimal Político)

Critics say the changes, championed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, weaken the political independence of the country’s electoral agency and undermine democratic institutions in a country governed by a single-party for seven decades, until 2000.

The reforms, a watered down “Plan B” after lawmakers rejected AMLO’s original proposal, cut agency salaries, funding for local election offices and training for citizens who operate and oversee polling stations. They would also reduce sanctions for candidates who fail to report campaign spending.

AMLO’s efforts to reform the INE have galvanized opposition to his Morena party, which holds a majority in Congress and most of Mexico’s state governments, reports the Washington Post. AMLO cannot run for reelection, and his party is likely to win the presidency again even without the new law.

AMLO contends he was robbed of the presidency twice before his 2018 victory, argues the INE is too expensive and biased in favor of his opponents, reports Reuters.

But many demonstrators — clad in the INE’s color pink — voiced concern that Mexico could return to the kind of vote miscounting, campaign overspending and electoral pressure tactics that were common before the independent electoral agency was created in the 1990s, reports the Associated Press.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge to the overhaul in the coming months. Many see the moment as a critical test for the court, which has been a target of criticism by AMLO, reports the New York Times.

More Mexico

  • AMLO posted a photo on his social media accounts showing what he said appeared to be a Mayan mythological woodland spirit, an alux. He didn’t seem to be joking, according to the Associated Press.


  • Guatemala has become a key migration gatekeeper for the United States, reports El Faro. Authorities reported that 15,593 Venezuelans were barred from entering from Honduras, with a major increase in arrivals in October. Many Venezuelans in Guatemala, discouraged by border enforcement and Mexican organized criminal groups’ killing, ransom, rape, and other crimes against migrants, are heading south to Panama, South America, or elsewhere.

  • “Being a migrant woman in Mexico adds obstacles to an already dangerous journey,” reports El Faro. “There is harassment, sexual violence, pregnancies, children and much more family depending on them. More and more women and girls are seeking asylum in Mexico or trying to reach the United States. Their bodies take a central role when they are in transit, to the point that some try to hide that they are women to cross Mexico. The risk is such that along the way the morning after pill is known as the ‘anti-Mexico pill’.”

  • “Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country,” according to a New York Times investigation.

  • U.S. vigilante militas are crossing the Mexican border in operations targeting migrants — tactics that “raise a plethora of legal issues, not least the ramifications of violent altercations within Mexican territory,” reports Bellingcat.

  • “The number of refugee petitions more than doubled in the past two years in Mexico compared to the combined totals from 2019 and 2020,” reports Border Report. (Americas Migration Brief)

Regional Relations

  • Jamaicam Prime Minister Andrew Holness is making a one-day visit to Haiti today, along with government ministers and ambassadors from the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago. Their mission aims to determine how Caribbean leaders can aid Haiti’s multiple, intertwined crises, including rampant street gang violence and a collapsed healthcare system, reports the Miami Herald.

  • As gangs tighten their grip on Haiti, many medical facilities in the country’s most violent areas have closed. The Fontaine in Cité Soleil is one of the last hospitals and social institutions in one of the world’s most lawless places, reports the Associated Press.


  • Lesther Alemán, a student activist emblematic of the 2018 protests against Ortega, is one of the 222 political prisoners released earlier this month. He talked to El País about his 584 days in the infamous El Chipote prison — and how he was beaten by police on the way there in retaliation for his demands that the government cease repressing demonstrations.


  • Guatemala’s electoral authorities are more generous with other would be candidates, the roster for this year’s general elections littered with questionable politicians — from former President Jimmy Morales to people on the U.S. Engels List and others accused of drug trafficking — reports Héctor Silva Ávalos at Prensa Comunitaria.


  • Citizen reporters in Venezuela are reporting news in person — from balconies and in the streets — giving an alternative to state-controlled media in a landscape where independent journalism is increasingly under attack, reports the Washington Post.


  • A Colombian court this month hosted its first legal trial in the metaverse, and now hopes to experiment again with virtual reality, reports Reuters.


  • A two-story house in a Belo Horizonte favela has just been recognized as the “house of the year” in an international architecture competition. “The design of the house represents a constructive model that uses common materials in the slums, with an adequate implementation and attention to lighting and ventilation, resulting in a space with great environmental quality,” ArchDaily wrote on its website. (Al Jazeera)

Just Caribbean Updates

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