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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Prisons in Latin America: The Symptoms and the Cause of Violence

Written by Isabella Ferro for South American Section.

Latin America has the highest rates of crime in the world; one wonders, how are their prisons dealing with this issue? Prisons in Latin America are suffering and so is justice. Prison exposes the conflict between the right to safety of the general public and the right of those imprisoned to fair trial as well as other rights. This article examines this issue and in doing so unearths polictical influences on the condition and relevance of prisons in society.

What is happening?

As of September 2023, five Latin American countries[1] are in the top 20 countries with the highest prison overcrowding rates.[2] Moreover, 18 countries in the region have a prison population exceeding their maximum capacity.[3] This is primarily caused by the pitfalls in the judicial systems of these countries, mainly how slow the system is and the excessive use of preventive prison.[4] For context, an average of 40% of prisoners in South America and 35% of prisoners in Central America are serving prison time without being sentenced for a crime.[5]

Prison overcrowding not only leads to decreases in the quality of life of prisoners but also makes prisons extremely hard to control, rapidly becoming violent hubs run by gangs.[6] For example, in Ecuador, extortions in prisons for basic services no longer provided by the state (such as cleaning and food) increased 65% from 2022 to 2023, and an overall 400% since 2021.[7] Moreover, as gangs fight for control of the prisons, violence increases even more, with 400 recorded prisoner deaths in the country since 2021.[8] 


Step back…

            Almost half of all intentional homicide victims in the world are from Latin America, despite only making up 8% of the global population.[9] This can be attributed to the presence of multiple criminal groups, including drug trafficking organisations, street gangs, and militias, found all over the region; when these groups compete, violence rapidly escalates.[10] Particularly, the majority of the violence derives from disputes between drug trafficking organisations over cocaine export points to Europe and the United States.[11]

            The situation has only worsened as notorious Mexican cartels have expanded south, providing weapons and funding to otherwise juvenile, low-scale gangs.[12] Furthermore, because of the high social inequality and poverty rates in the region, young people who are otherwise disillusioned with their prospects, are particularly vulnerable to the grasp of drug trafficking organisations under promises of easy money.[13]

            This has created both real and perceived insecurity for the public.[14] People demand change, and this has ultimately led to governments enacting criminal and procedural reforms to get more people in prison, hoping civilians will feel safer.[15] It is these policy changes that have grown Latin America’s prison population by 70% in the past 20 years.[16]


What do the people think?

            Yes, prison overcrowding is a massive issue on a variety of levels; it poses threats to not only prisoner welfare,[17] but it can threaten public safety as well. Look at Ecuador, where, as recently as last month, one of the most dangerous gang leaders escaped prison as part of a series of riots, ultimately leading to an official declaration of war against these newly proclaimed terrorist organisations,[18] causing fear and uncertainty nationwide.[19] This can be directly attributed to prison overcrowding as a systemic issue that loosens the authorities’ control.

            So, people will naturally respond by pushing for more governmental control, a firmer hand, hoping they can feel safe again. For example, in El Salvador, current president Nayib Bukele implemented extreme measures to combat gang violence and ‘restore peace’, including the construction of a prison with the capacity to hold 40,000 ‘terrorists’ in what has been described as some of the worst conditions for prisoners.[20] Yet, since Bukele’s ascension to power, these measures have been able to achieve 365 (non-continuous) days without homicides, which is essentially what he was elected to achieve.[21] This has scored Bukele a whopping 90% approval rate as of February 2024, meaning that he will probably be re-elected.[22]



When people in Latin America think of prison overcrowding, prisoner’s rights do not come to mind, rather, people are concerned with their own safety first, and they demand change. Governments, in an attempt to provide this sense of safety, put more people in prison, where they do not have the space or resources to maintain them. However, people gain an artificial sense of safety, enabling these policies and creating a vicious cycle.

Prison overcrowding is merely a symptom of a symptom. It can only be properly addressed when people’s concerns are mitigated, and to do that, widespread change to address this rising violence is necessary.

You might now be wondering, is there anything you can do? Yes! There is!

As you might have noticed, a common theme throughout this article is drug-related violence, so, as a citizen of the global north, what you can do to help is demand change from a national level first. Demand measures to address drug trafficking in your country, and remember, that if you choose to do drugs, this has tangible consequences for Latin America.[23] Of course, this does not mean that all the weight lies on you or that domestic measures are not indispensable, however, for once you can raise your voice and do something good to help the world. Do it.


[1] Haiti (#2) with 454.4% prison occupancy rate, Guatemala (#9) with 293.2%, Bolivia (#12) with 263.6%, El Salvador (#17) with 236.7%, and Peru (#20) with 225.1%.

[2] Einar H Dyvik, ‘Countries with the highest prison occupancy level 2023’ (Statista 25 September 2023) <,prison%20occupancy%2C%20at%20454.4%20percent.> accessed 16 February 2024.

[3] Valentine Fourreau, ‘Prison Overcrowding in Latin America’ (Statista 11 January 2024) <,five%20times%20its%20official%20capacity.> accessed 16 February 2024.

[4] Veronica Smink, ‘Los 6 países de América Latina y el Caribe donde la cantidad de presos duplica, triplica y hasta cuadriplica la capacidad de las cárceles’ (BBC News Mundo 8 October 2021) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sol Amaya and Jhasua Razo, ‘La precaria situación de las cárceles en América Latina, una bomba de tiempo’ (CNN Latinoamérica 10 November 2021) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[7] Rodrigo Sedano, ‘Pagar para sobrevivir: la ley del narcotráfico en las cárceles de Ecuador’ (France24 24 January 2024) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rafael Machado Parente and Rodrigo Valdes, ‘América Latina: Reducir la delincuencia para estimular el crecimiento económico’ (International Monetary Fund 20 December 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[10] Dario Migliorini, ‘Crimen organizado causa la mitad de los homicidios en Latinoamérica’ (InSight Crime 22 December 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jose Denis Cruz, ‘De México a Ecuador y de Costa Rica a Uruguay: la violencia del narcotráfico se extiende en América Latina’ (Newtral 21 January 2024) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[13] Aram Aharonian, ‘El narcotráfico se va adueñando de Latinoamérica’ (Rebelión 26 September 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[14] ‘América Latina lucha contra una nueva ola de criminalidad’ (Crisis Group 12 May 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[15] ‘Población carcelaria en América Latina creció 70% en 20 años’ (DW 23 November 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Poses a series of human rights issues regarding prisoners, specifically their rights to life (art 3), decent standard of living (art 25), and even freedom from torture (art 5); see Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR)

[18] Cristina J Orgaz, ‘Quién es Adolfo Macías, "Fito", cuya fuga de una prisión en Ecuador llevó al presidente Noboa a declarar el estado de excepción en el país’ (BBC News Mundo 9 January 2024) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[19] For more information on the situation see Archie Bland, ‘Wednesday briefing: Why masked gang members stormed an Ecuadorian TV station’ (The Guardian 10 January 2024) <'s%20president%20has%20declared%20a,the%20grip%20of%20armed%20gangs%3F&text=Good%20morning.,guns%2C%20grenades%2C%20and%20dynamite.> accessed 16 February 2024.

[20] David Martinez, ‘Así viven los presos de la cárcel contra las pandillas de El Salvador: 80 personas por celda sin poder hablar’ (El Español 18 October 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[21] Merlin Delcid, ‘Gobierno de El Salvador dice que alcanzó 365 días sin homicidios’ (CNN Latinoamerica 11 May 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

[23] Julie Turkewitz, ‘How a Peaceful Country Became a Gold Rush State for Drug Cartels’ (The New York Times 12 July 2023) <> accessed 16 February 2024.

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