A mixture of heavy-handed government policies, a lack of funding, and corruption has led to Latin America’s prisons being overcrowded hotbeds of violence and incubators for criminal activity. Mega-prisons, housing tens of thousands of prisoners in one spot, only seem to make things worse.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele’s gang crackdown, which has led to the imprisonment of over 57,000 suspected gang members, has stretched the country’s prisons to breaking point. Part of the plan to relieve this is the building of a new gigantic facility, which will open in early 2023.
But with overcrowding in prisons across the region at close to 200%, these mega-prisons are unlikely to improve the situation.
InSight Crime looked at four of Latin America’s largest penitentiaries, which have either failed or may be about to, to offer a window into the challenges for prison reform.
Terrorism Confinement Center, Tecoluca, El Salvador
In El Salvador, mass incarcerations and tougher laws against alleged gang members lead to more prison overcrowding. Since the implementation of the emergency rule in March, the police and army have arrested more than 57,000 suspected gang members, adding to the more than 16,000 that were already incarcerated. Two percent of the adult population is now behind bars.
Bukele’s heavy-handed policy has brought with it other consequences. These include the emergence of new illegal economies, like the extortion of inmates’ relatives, as the impoverished country struggles to provide basic necessities for the growing number of prisoners. There is no sign Tecoluca will solve that.
Worse, it will actually bring an entirely new problem: It is so large it poses a threat to the environment.
Litoral Penitentiary, Guayaquil, Ecuador
The largest prison in Ecuador is officially called Centro de Rehabilitación Social de Varones N. 1 de Guayaquil. It was opened in 1958 with space for 1,500 inmates. In 2021, the prison had 8,000 inmates crammed within its walls.
Various violent events have marked the prison’s history. In 2021, two massacres left 190 dead as gangs sought power. In November 2022, a wave of violence occurred after leaders of the Lobos and the Tiguerones, two of the country’s foremost criminal gangs, were transferred between prisons.
Harsh anti-drug policies have contributed to overcrowding in Ecuador. Pervasive corruption within the prison system fosters criminal gang governance, while the model of exchanging information for prisoner privileges allegedly employed by authorities in the country promotes gang violence and places control of the penitentiary into the hands of inmates.
In the face of these problems, transferring prisoners accused of participating in riots to smaller centers such as La Roca, a maximum security prison in Guayaquil, has not brought stability to the prisons.
Carandiru, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Officially named La Casa de Detención de Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo Detention House), Carandiru was built as a “model prison” following the rules of the Republican Penal Code of 1890. It became the largest in South America, housing more than 8,000 inmates, almost three times its official capacity in the 1990s.
An ambitious expansion worsened the security situation in the prison and sparked a series of riots. Authorities reacted — extremely harshly — and events culminated in 1992’s Carandiru massacre, where Sao Paulo Military Police killed at least 111 inmates.
The Carandiru massacre was the consequence of the prison’s shortcomings. These included inhumane confinement conditions, Sao Paulo police’s “Atira primeiro e pergunta depois” (shoot first, ask questions later) approach, and the tightening of anti-gang laws that further increased the already massive prison population.
Rather than being a “model prison,” the riots and demands for justice by inmates at Carandiru directly led to the creation of criminal organizations, including the First Capital Command (Primer Comando da Capital – PCC), one of the most influential gangs in Brazil and regionally. Carandiru reflected the country’s failed prison system and remains a reminder well after its closure in 2002.
Lurigancho Prison, Lima, Peru
Lurigancho Prison, also known as El Frontón, is Peru’s most densely populated prison. In 2019, it held 7,650 inmates — triple its intended capacity and one-quarter of Peru’s total prison population. The prison was inaugurated in 1974 to overcome historical trends of punishment and repression within the penitentiary system. It failed.
In 1986, three prison riots took place simultaneously across the country, including Lurigancho, as inmates demanded better conditions and protested the transfer of prisoners from the historic and now defunct criminal organization, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, or Militarizado Partido Comunista de Peru – MPCP). The riots left 300 dead, including 124 in Lurigancho.
Control of the country’s prisons was handed over to the Republican Guard (now the National Police) as a consequence. It was not until 2017 that control was handed over to the National Penitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario – INPE).
Lurigancho prison has been the scene of riots, murders, and multiple human rights violations. It has fostered a varied illicit market for weapons and drugs. Despite attempts to improve the prison environment, overcrowding represents the major ongoing problem facing Peru’s penitentiary system.
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