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El Salvador’s Welcome Prison Industrial Complex

Massive new prison built to house gang members as murder rates plummet. Fact is, prisons work
Screen Shot 2023-02-27 at 6.38.55 AM

Normally one would be horrified by the opening of a vast new super-prison, like the one in El Salvador, described here by the Washington Post:

Earlier this month, Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, unveiled his latest infrastructure project: a massive, “first-world” jail that could well become the largest penitentiary in the world, with an alleged capacity to hold 40,000 inmates. This weekend, he announced the transfer of the first 2,000 prisoners to the new facility.

“A common-sense project,” Bukele called it.

The reality is that the scale of the project defies common sense — and easy comprehension. And the social implications of the endeavor are no less striking. The citizens of El Salvador have tacitly accepted Bukele’s unprecedented crackdown on crime, and, for the time anyway, are ignoring its broader ramifications.


The murder rate, once the highest in the world, has plummeted, though. More:

But the real sea change is on the ground, where citizens report that extortion has all but disappeared. Salvadorans have gained a palpable sense of security in their everyday lives at the expense of due process, democracy and transparency. Most seem to be fine with the trade-off. Bukele himself is immensely popular, as is the state of emergency he has declared. Protests against him have fizzled.

That said, nothing guarantees the long-term success of this extravagantly punitive approach. Systemic opacity has made it impossible for independent journalists to verify what it will cost Bukele to fund his sprawling security apparatus. Maintaining an indefinite state of emergency and a high incarceration rate won’t come cheap, and the country’s economy is not healthy.

He could also be playing with fire by creating such a huge police state. Security forces have a nasty habit of becoming powerful interest groups of their own, and could even attempt to seize power if their demands are not met.

Yeah, he might be. Certainly the need for such a prison is not a sign of a healthy society. The image above, of some prisoners, is dehumanizing. But what is the alternative for the people of El Salvador, overrun by MS-13 and other gangs? Either you hive away these criminals who are incapable of life in normal society, or you turn the entire country into one big prison yard, where might makes right. I don't feel sorry for these criminals being dehumanized. I pity the men, women, and children of El Salvador who were terrorized by these men, who have traded their humanity for evil.

A few years ago, the Washington Post ran a story on the Satanic nature of MS-13, which has turned up in the DC area. Excerpts:

Over the past 20 years, MS-13 and its rival, 18th Street, have carved up territory in Central America, said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“If you grow up in one of these havens, that’s it. You are MS because your father was MS and your grandfather was MS,” he said. “And for you to be able to walk down the street and get a Coca-Cola or what have you, you have to make sure you are part of something so you’re not preyed upon. That’s their safety net.”

In these gang-controlled neighborhoods, satanism persisted.

“What the two gangs do have in common is the belief that life and death are somehow intermingled,” Pablo Trincia wrote in the Independent. “This belief partly explains the bones and devils tattooed on their bodies, as well as their satanic rituals, such as hacking a victim to death and scattering the organs on the ground in a pentagonal shape.”

As MS-13 violence returned to the United States with a vengeance in the mid 2000s — including a spate of high profile murders in the Washington region — so did reports of the gang’s satanism.

“The brutality of the gangs’ crimes is increasingly horrific,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2004. “Homicide victims, including many women and teenage girls, often are found so mutilated that Spanish priest Jose Maria Morataya, who runs a San Salvador rehabilitation and job training center for former gang members … suspects that some gang members practice satanic rituals.”


This one MS-13 member was brought into the gang in El Salvador at age nine. His first act of violence was attempting, at age nine, to blow his mother's head off; it failed when the trigger malfunctioned. It was downhill from there:

In October 2013, when Del Cid was 17, he helped murder a fellow gang member suspected of snitching, he said. But the body proved too big for the shallow grave in Holmes Run Park in Fairfax County.

“So we grabbed the machete and began to go at the legs,” Del Cid testified. “And then we doubled them over and stuck them in the hole as well.”

Del Cid and other gang members later dug up the body and moved it deeper into the woods, covering it in acid “to dissolve the body more quickly,” he said. A couple of months later, when he was 18, Del Cid helped kill another gang member suspected of stealing from the gang and sleeping with another gang member’s girlfriend. The victim’s head was cut off and buried with his body in a shallow grave, again in Holmes Run Park.

In June 2014, Del Cid and two fellow MS-13 members were “on patrol” in Alexandria when they attacked someone they mistakenly thought belonged to the 18th Street gang. After an MS-13 member nicknamed “Taliban” shot the man, Del Cid and the gunman fled into the woods.

“I told you, homeboy, that what I wanted was to feed the beast,” Taliban told him as they fled, Del Cid testified.

“Let’s pray, homeboy,” said Taliban, whose real name is Jesus Alejandro Chavez. “I have already fed the beast. Now we have to pray to the beast that we will not be caught.”

“The beast basically is the devil,” Del Cid explained in court. “When you [are involved in MS-13], you feel that the devil is helping you, and sometimes the devil asked you to do things for him.”

Del Cid and Taliban made devil horns with their hands and joined them together to pray for deliverance from police.

Here's a fascinating Twitter thread by an American who wrote in praise of Bukele's prison, was criticized by some other Americans, but then Salvadorans rushed to defend him, telling the US critics that they have no idea what life was like in El Salvador before Bukele did this. The gang bangers ruled the country with murder, rape, extortion, you name it. Now decent people can walk down the street without fear, they say. Thread starts like this:


On the other hand, the Post reports on an unsealed US indictment accusing senior Salvadoran government officials of negotiating with gang members for a reduction in murders. There may be a lot more to this story than meets the eye.

Overall, though, the brute fact is: prisons work, and they work for a brutal reason: there are some men who cannot live in society. That's what prison is for: to protect society from those who would destroy it.

In the United States, we have allowed the sad fact that a hugely disproportionate number of blacks are in prison (40 percent of the inmate population, and 13.4 percent of the general population) to convince many people that this must be the effect of racism. It doesn't seem to have occurred to many journalists or policy makers that these men are in prison because they have been convicted of serious violent crimes, making them threats to the peace of their communities. It is true that a society that imprisons so many of its citizens is in some respects a failing society. But it is also true that a society that refuses to imprison its violent criminals, and that allows them to threaten the lives and the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens, is also a failing society. The distinction is this: the society that is failing in the first instance -- whether its poor black America, or whatever segment of Salvadoran society is producing gang members -- is the one that turns out anti-social young men. The society that's failing in the second instance is the larger society that will not protect itself from those within who wish to do it harm.

There is something about the leftist mind that cannot comprehend that some people really are evil and need to be locked away forever, even if they are members of sacred minority groups. I remember the Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1987 when I began to turn against the Left, despite having been a campus liberal my first two years of college. I went with my then-girlfriend to an Amnesty International event in town; we were both activists in Amnesty. This event featured a black man talking about the injustice of American prisons. He worked himself up into a true rant, expectorating that American prisons were part of an anti-black "genocide" program. And all those white leftists just lapped it all up. I walked out. My girlfriend was mad at me. So it goes.

That said, if you can't see the potential problems with Bukele's kind of Caesarism, you're blind. The question, though, remains: What's the alternative? When your society is under overwhelming attack from satanic criminals, of the sort that play soccer with human heads, you need to meet force with stronger force, of the sort that can return law and order to the streets. We may get to the point in the United States where people are willing to welcome this kind of Caesarism. I hope we never do, but you can be sure that if crime ever got to the point in America that it did in El Salvador, that many Americans would cheer for an American Bukele.

Here in Hungary, where I live, the incarceration rate is 172 per 100,000 people -- less than one-third of what it is in the United States, which is 629 per 100,000 people, but far more than in Germany, which is 70 per 100,000 people. (In the US, by way of comparison, the incarceration rate for blacks is 1,500 per 100,000 black Americans.) You have to come to Budapest to experience what it's like to be able to walk around a great capital city without fear -- and it's not achieved by having cops on every street corner, either. The Roma people (sometimes called Gypsies) make up only three to seven percent of the general population, but 33 percent of the prison population. It's complicated: the Roma are poor and marginalized, and face discrimination, but it's also the case that there's a lot of self-segregation among them, and refusal to observe norms of Hungarian life. For example, they generally have a cultural habit of dropping out of high school ... but if you don't have a high school diploma, there aren't many jobs for you in Hungary. Lots of Hungarians have stories of Gypsy crime. One of my Budapest friends told me the only time she has ever seen a gun was when a Gypsy man on her street stood on the sidewalk waving a gun to threaten his girlfriend, sending everyone running for cover. This kind of behavior is uncommon among Magyars, to say the least. Another Magyar friend told me that he used to do social work among the Roma, and that it's hard for people who don't have direct experience with those people to grasp how very different are their values -- and how antithetical they are in some important ways to the values of the mainstream, especially when it comes to fundamentals like work, education, and criminality.

So, when you see the raw numbers -- Roma only three to seven percent of society, but 33 percent of the prison population -- the American liberal thinks, "Bigotry!" But Hungarians know there's a much more complex story at work, of which prejudice may be just one factor. If you told an ordinary Magyar that he should be prepared to tolerate more Roma crime for the sake of "equity" (meaning, keeping the Roma prison population more in line with Magyar percentages), he would think that you're a loony leftist. And he would be right. There are still some peoples left in the West who believe protecting society against those who prey on the law-abiding, even if the result of that would horrify a DEI educator, is a virtue.