Diary of El Salvador: The Psychology of Mass Incarceration | Opinion

On May 17, Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, head of El Salvador’s national police, tweeted that “more than 31,000 terrorists have been “captured” since the establishment of the country. “. state of emergency at the end of March.

Negotiations between Salvadoran gangs and members of President Nayib Bukele’s government, including Carlos Marroquín, the director of rebuilding the social fabric, have broken down, and a surge in homicides has sparked a state of emergency.

Before the most recent “terrorist” roundup, El Salvador already had a prison population of about 39,000; as of October 2021, the small country had the fourth highest incarceration rate per capita in the world (number one is — who else? — U.S). Now, amid the ongoing state of emergency, the Bukler regime has spontaneously enacted “special laws” to pave the way for rampant new prisons. After all, imprisoning poor young people is clearly a better way to rebuild El Salvador’s “social fabric” than to offer economic survival options that keep people from joining gangs in the first place.

As with any good “war on terror”, there is a lot of collateral damage. Among the more than 31,000 “terrorists” captured, for example, was 21-year-old musician Elvin Josué Sánchez Rivera, who was detained in early April at the Izalco prison, northwest of the El Salvador capital, San Salvador. When he died a few weeks later, his family was first told the cause of death was the coronavirus.

It was later amended to read “high blood pressure” and “sudden death,” and the family’s request for an autopsy was denied despite — or because of — Sánchez Rivera’s bruises and other signs of abuse. Nine inmates have reportedly lost their lives in Izalco prison alone, as of 17 May, since the state of emergency began in March.

I arrived in El Salvador in mid-April and stayed there for a month. Shortly after arriving, I had the opportunity to speak with an El Salvadoran psychologist in his 30s—let’s call him Julio—who himself was involved in Bukele’s mass detention spree and spent his time in overcrowded cells. Six days in San Salvador is affectionately known as “El Penalito” or “Little Prison”.as the New York Times notesEl Penalito “has become ground zero for the most radical police crackdown in the history of the Central American country”.

When he was admitted, Julio told me over a large beer one afternoon in April that he had about 55 other men and boys in his cell, which made him immobile, meaning he spent time in prison. The first night was standing. A toilet is a hole in the ground into which water is poured – as long as there happens to be water, that’s it.

His cellmates ranged from tattooed gang members to an 84-year-old deaf man, a 16-year-old boy, and some street vendors who had apparently been fished out of the city center and hastily labeled as gang mates—an undeniable excess of processing a way of populations that are hampering the government’s vision of “revitalizing” urban centres, which will attract Bitcoin investor crowd and other international tourists. It’s also a handy trick to meet the police’s daily detention quota, depending on the state of emergency and the need to maintain belligerent momentum.

Because of his fair skin and apparent relative socioeconomic privilege, many prisoners initially saw him as a police informant, but gang members in the cell took a fancy to him and even lent him a pair of shorts as compensation, Julio said. Because the jailer decided to imprison him naked. The gang members also looked after the 84- and 16-year-olds, oversaw the distribution of food at mealtimes so everyone was fed, and – once some were moved out of their cells – devised a sleeping arrangement that required Put other people’s feet on your face, but at least so that you don’t have to be vertical 24 hours a day.

Julio’s initial nickname was “Tarzan,” then “Aquaman,” and finally “El Profe” — “the teacher” — when he started teaching others about physical exercises that could be done within the confines of a cell. The story of his regular surfing on El Salvador’s beaches piqued the interest of fellow inmates, many of whom have never seen the sea despite the country’s ample coastline.

He has become acutely aware of his privilege and has therefore become even more so, and has begun to think – he told me – that it would be fine if he died in prison because he had more than his fair share of opportunities on earth . Others shared tidbits of their own personal histories that thematically leaned toward family members who were killed or raped. In the end, life in El Salvador is cheap – and it is the poor who pay the price.

Julio attributes his quick release from El Penalito to his “whiteness” – also a symbol of social class – and believes that if he wasn’t so “white” his family would never hear from him again . Before his release, he witnessed a perfunctory visit to the prison by representatives of El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman’s office, which is firmly in Bukele’s pocket — his own stance on human rights included constant mockery of the concept on Twitter.

Speaking to a human rights representative through the bars of his cell, Julio urged the man to put the conditions of abuse in perspective: “How would you feel if your child was here?” According to Julio, the response was: “This That’s why I don’t have kids”, followed by some comments about the bad smell emanating from incarcerated people.

Of course, with gang members being ruthlessly portrayed as savage and inhuman by nature, it’s easier for the government of El Salvador to justify denying them their human rights — and the same goes for the 84-year-old man and anyone else who happens to be in trouble throughout the hunt. molecular”. The exaggerated demonization of important parts of El Salvadoran society can also easily distract from the inhumanity of neoliberalism itself, which thrives on perpetuation of misery and incarceration – as in the United States, the superpower El Salvador has long supported right-wing oppression thanks in large part to the phenomenon of gangs.

While psychologists shouldn’t be aware that gang members are people too, it’s not in the government’s interest to admit that there is a specific political socioeconomic explanation for the existence of gangs — and that they are a by-product, not the cause of a fundamentally violent system. Conveniently, another new law that passed El Salvador’s parliament in April ambiguously criminalized sharing information about gangs, meaning any substantive discussion of El Salvador’s reality has been effectively outlawed.

In Julio’s case, his prison time certainly provided a profound opportunity for self-psychoanalysis—not to mention a psychological assessment of a deranged regime and its incarceration-based war on poverty. When I met him drinking a beer, he was still visibly traumatized, worried about going out after dark and the possibility of encountering a police checkpoint on the road.

On May 4, Bukele tweeted domineeringly that “crime of any kind” will not be tolerated in El Salvador. But as the emergency dragged on — destroying countless lives in the process — it all amounted to a major crime.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.

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