El Salvador's security minister has said that the government intends to end the practice of separating prisoners based on their gang affiliation, in comments that acknowledge the failings of the policy but not the reality of the country's gang-controlled penitentiaries.
The minister for justice and public security, Benito Lara, told journalists that the decision to hold members of different gangs, principally the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, in separate prisons was a mistake and would be ended in the "not too distant" future, reported La Prensa Grafica.
Lara said he backed an opposition congressman's proposal to reform the country's Prison Law to make it illegal to assign convicts to prisons based on gang membership or other organized crime affiliations.
The minister said reforms were made more urgent by the fracturing of gang structures, and the emergence of new factions within these criminal groups.
"In some places the gangs have divided, and we cannot place each one in their own exclusive prison," he said.
Gang members make up around 36 percent of El Salvador's prison population. There are currently two prisons which house a total of 5,432 MS13 members, and four prisons for the two factions of Barrio 18, with 2,351 "Revolucionarios" and 2,135 "Sureños" incarcerated, reported La Prensa Grafica.
InSight Crime Analysis
El Salvador has been separating prisoners by gang membership since 2003, when the government decided it was the best way to reduce prison violence following massive riots.
While the benefits of separating two organizations involved in a long-running and brutal gang war are self-evident, the segregation has had various unintended consequences that have helped strengthen the gangs.
Turning over entire prisons to one gang has allowed these groups to take near-complete control of the facilities where they are housed. Keeping gang leaders and their underlings all together has also facilitated communication and made it easier to conduct and coordinate criminal activities from the inside. Critics also say (pdf) that segregation has reinforced gang identify and feelings of cohesion and loyalty, as well as increasing members' hostility towards their enemies.
However, despite these drawbacks to segregation, the conditions in El Salvador prison system mean that any moves towards ending the practice could prove even more problematic. The country's prisons are horrendously overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced, and the authorities have little control over what happens inside. Unless the state can reclaim control over the prisons first, moves to integrate opposing gang members could end in a bloodbath.