Latin America’s prison system is in crisis. Human Rights Watch has called the Latin American penitentiary system “underfunded, overcrowded and often controlled by criminals inside their walls.” In March 2012, a prison fire killed over 350 inmates in Honduras. The same week, a series of prison riots in three Mexican penitentiaries resulted in 48 fatalities. Later in the year, images of black smoke and tanks moving through the streets of Caracas after a prison riot circled the world.
These tragedies have drawn renewed interest to the growing crisis facing the region’s prison system. Within the context of Central America, the Sistema de Integracion Centroamericano (Central American Integration System—SICA) has listed the improvement, expansion and modernization of the region’s prison system as a strategic objective of the Central American Security Strategy. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has already committed funds to update a diagnostic document detailing the state of the region’s penitentiary system.
El Salvador is no exception to the hemispheric trend of prison violence and overcrowding. Since the two main rival gangs announced a truce in March 2012, El Salvador has increased its awareness of the conditions and challenges that the penitentiary system faces. In June 2012, El Salvador’s Dirección de Centros Penales (Directorate of the Penitentiary System) confirmed that the prison system was operating at 317 percent of its capacity.