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Huge Profits on Offer in El Salvador Prison Economy

Huge Profits on Offer in El Salvador Prison Economy

An intelligence investigation has revealed the pricing structure for goods within El Salvador’s jails, which are now not only finishing schools for criminals but sources of income for organized crime as in many parts of Latin America.

A cellphone worth about $20 outside prison sells for up to $200 inside, intelligence sources told La Prensa Grafica, while SIM cards and chargers worth $3 and $5 outside fetch around $6 and $50 inside.

The cost rises according to how hard it is to get the item to the buyer — for instance a smartphone would cost $800 in a regular prison compound but up to $3,000 in a maximum security section.

An empty SD memory card costs $80, while a card filled with data such as photos, videos, or instructions from gang members can cost up to $800.

A thriving drug trade sees a gram of cocaine, which would costs $25 outside, fetch $250 inside, while marijuana also sees a tenfold rise in cost — $1 per gram on the outside, $10 per gram on the inside. A drug used to treat erectile dysfunction which costs between $1 and $5 per pill in pharmacies sells for about $15 per pill in jail.

A report by the National Academy of Public Security late last year described the booming extortion trade inside prisons, said La Prensa Grafica, which has risen more than 1,400 percent in the last decade. Imprisoned gang members could easily earn between $600 and $1,000 a month from extortion, far exceeding minimum wages in sectors such as agriculture and commerce.

InSight Crime Analysis

Latin American jails are among the most overcrowded and dangerous in the world, particularly those in El Salvador — at 325 percent occupancy its prisons are the second most overcrowded in the world after Haiti, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.

The overcrowding and lack of state investment have allowed inmates to exercise control over the facilities, in many cases running them altogether. This in turn has led to the development of complex prison economies, as well as allowing jails to act as criminal training grounds.

SEE MORE: Coverage of Prisons

In Venezuelan jails the illicit economy generates millions of dollars a year, while in Honduras and Bolivia prisoners run sophisticated disciplinary and “taxation” systems.

El Salvador’s principal gangs meanwhile, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, have an extremely strong presence within the country’s prisons and clearly continue to run operations with ease behind bars.

  • El Salvador
  • Prisons