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EF Photo / Inequality
Business and Misery Outside El Salvador's Prisons
Víctor Peña

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Víctor Peña

“This state of exception thing — it’s been a beacon of hope for business,” says Johnny, the owner of a new pop-up store that sells clothing, food, and refreshments along the main road to Izalco Prison, a towering complex west of San Salvador that holds many of the more than 44,000 people the government has rounded up since declaring a “state of exception” on March 27. Like Johnny, many have opened up street shops in areas adjacent to the country’s prisons, where every day, mothers, wives, fathers and loved ones gather in search of information on the whereabouts of their detained relatives.

But while business has been booming for some, for the families of the incarcerated —many already struggling to make ends meet— the state of exception has spelled further economic ruin. In some cases, relatives have had to spend their last few dollars on uniforms and toiletries for their imprisoned loved ones, or pay for bus fare, use the bathrooms near the prisons, or even rent a marker to write the name of their relatives on their packages before sending them into the prison. For many, these expenses are exacerbated by the reality of having to set aside their informal jobs so that they can search for their missing sons and husbands or wait for them outside the prisons. For some, the state of exception has been good for business; for thousands of others, it has spelled economic and social ruin.

 

Ever since the mass transfers to the prisons began, the streets surrounding Mariona Prison have been crowded with street vendors, walking around selling products to the families of the detained. This vendor, who sells face masks, also offers to carry packages to the north gate of the prison for a fee of one dollar — a service used mainly by elderly women.
 
Ever since the mass transfers to the prisons began, the streets surrounding Mariona Prison have been crowded with street vendors, walking around selling products to the families of the detained. This vendor, who sells face masks, also offers to carry packages to the north gate of the prison for a fee of one dollar — a service used mainly by elderly women.

 

 

Family members, most of them women, began arriving at the Izalco Prison around 2 a.m., to be the first in line to deliver their packages of food and clothing. Waiting, too, costs money: every day, residents of the community near the prison set up chairs and rent them for one dollar per person. Some have been waiting for six hours while others spent the night here, waiting until 7:30 a..m., when the prison begins authorizing deliveries.
 
Family members, most of them women, began arriving at the Izalco Prison around 2 a.m., to be the first in line to deliver their packages of food and clothing. Waiting, too, costs money: every day, residents of the community near the prison set up chairs and rent them for one dollar per person. Some have been waiting for six hours while others spent the night here, waiting until 7:30 a..m., when the prison begins authorizing deliveries.

 

 

Most of the people with homes near Izalco Prison rent their bathrooms to family members waiting to deliver packages to their loved ones. After the state of exception began, some residents cleared out vacant lots and set up improvised latrines and temporary parking lots — bathrooms are $.25 per use, and parking is $2.00 per vehicle.
 
Most of the people with homes near Izalco Prison rent their bathrooms to family members waiting to deliver packages to their loved ones. After the state of exception began, some residents cleared out vacant lots and set up improvised latrines and temporary parking lots — bathrooms are $.25 per use, and parking is $2.00 per vehicle.

 

 

Cristian, 20, has spent the last ten years working at Izalco Prison, transporting packages for family members. His cart can hold 15 bags, and he charges $2.00 per bag, per trip. Before, he was lucky to make one trip a day with a full cart; now he makes three. A boombox attached to his cart plays reggaeton as he walks the two kilometers to the prison entrance. “So my customers don’t get bored,” he says, laughing.
 
Cristian, 20, has spent the last ten years working at Izalco Prison, transporting packages for family members. His cart can hold 15 bags, and he charges $2.00 per bag, per trip. Before, he was lucky to make one trip a day with a full cart; now he makes three. A boombox attached to his cart plays reggaeton as he walks the two kilometers to the prison entrance. “So my customers don’t get bored,” he says, laughing.

 

 

“We have ones from $10 to $25,” says a vendor outside Mariona Prison who sells shoes, clothing, food, and personal hygiene products for prisoners. This seller also offers pre-made packages that include a complete prison outfit — socks, boxers, shorts, a shirt and a pair of Crocs-style slip-ons — for $11.50. “The shoes are supposed to be totally white. It’s hard to get ones with black stripes past the guards, but sometimes they’ll let them in,” said the vendor, who asked not to be identified by name.
 
“We have ones from $10 to $25,” says a vendor outside Mariona Prison who sells shoes, clothing, food, and personal hygiene products for prisoners. This seller also offers pre-made packages that include a complete prison outfit — socks, boxers, shorts, a shirt and a pair of Crocs-style slip-ons — for $11.50. “The shoes are supposed to be totally white. It’s hard to get ones with black stripes past the guards, but sometimes they’ll let them in,” said the vendor, who asked not to be identified by name.

 

 

A new shop is set up in front of a house on the main street leading to Izalco Prison. This  pop-up store has a big bucket full of ice and sodas, water, and other beverages; a table with soap, laundry detergent, toothpaste and rolls of toilet paper; another table overflowing with snacks; and another with towels and linens for prisoners. “We just recently opened, because of everything that’s been going on,” the owner, Johnny, told El Faro. “This state of exception thing — it’s been a beacon of hope for business.”
 
A new shop is set up in front of a house on the main street leading to Izalco Prison. This  pop-up store has a big bucket full of ice and sodas, water, and other beverages; a table with soap, laundry detergent, toothpaste and rolls of toilet paper; another table overflowing with snacks; and another with towels and linens for prisoners. “We just recently opened, because of everything that’s been going on,” the owner, Johnny, told El Faro. “This state of exception thing — it’s been a beacon of hope for business.”

 

 

Ángela, 55, collects her coins in this little basket. Her son was detained on April 6 in Distrito Italia, Tonacatepeque, and ever since, she has traveled to Izalco Prison every day hoping to find news of him. “Every day people leave this place wounded or dead,” she says. “I need to be here, to keep an eye out for my son.” Angela sells the clear plastic bags used to make packages for prisoners. What she earns, she spends on the $6.00 it costs her to travel to and from the prison. She also works collecting fees for a local homeowner who rents out her bathroom. This guarantees her a spot on the side of the road, in case she needs to spend the night near the prison.
 
Ángela, 55, collects her coins in this little basket. Her son was detained on April 6 in Distrito Italia, Tonacatepeque, and ever since, she has traveled to Izalco Prison every day hoping to find news of him. “Every day people leave this place wounded or dead,” she says. “I need to be here, to keep an eye out for my son.” Angela sells the clear plastic bags used to make packages for prisoners. What she earns, she spends on the $6.00 it costs her to travel to and from the prison. She also works collecting fees for a local homeowner who rents out her bathroom. This guarantees her a spot on the side of the road, in case she needs to spend the night near the prison.

 

 

After several hours of waiting, police and soldiers finally allow family members to start walking toward the prison. They walk for more than one and a half kilometers, carrying packages on their heads and backs for half an hour. After a little over an hour, some return to the waiting spot still carrying their packages: their relatives were not on the list, and they were unable to obtain any information about them.
 
After several hours of waiting, police and soldiers finally allow family members to start walking toward the prison. They walk for more than one and a half kilometers, carrying packages on their heads and backs for half an hour. After a little over an hour, some return to the waiting spot still carrying their packages: their relatives were not on the list, and they were unable to obtain any information about them.

 

 

María Moreno writes the name of her only son on a plastic cup. She carries her own marker, so she doesn’t have to pay the $1.00 fee to rent one. María spent $30 on the last package she delivered to Izalco Prison for her 20-year-old son, arrested on May 17 in Santa Ana. María earns a living selling breakfast in her neighborhood, but she had to shut down her business, which is her only income, so she could travel to the prison. María spends about $4.00 on bus fare each time she travels to the prison.
 
María Moreno writes the name of her only son on a plastic cup. She carries her own marker, so she doesn’t have to pay the $1.00 fee to rent one. María spent $30 on the last package she delivered to Izalco Prison for her 20-year-old son, arrested on May 17 in Santa Ana. María earns a living selling breakfast in her neighborhood, but she had to shut down her business, which is her only income, so she could travel to the prison. María spends about $4.00 on bus fare each time she travels to the prison.

 

 

“Money rules everything here, so you have to come prepared,” says Nohemy Genovés, who has already spent about $200 on clothes, food, transport, and on other expenses to deliver packages to her son, who was detained on May 17 in Santa Ana. “These are expenses I didn’t have before, but I need to pay them — he’s my son and I can’t just abandon him,” says Genovés, a housekeeper who receives support from her husband and her other children.
 
“Money rules everything here, so you have to come prepared,” says Nohemy Genovés, who has already spent about $200 on clothes, food, transport, and on other expenses to deliver packages to her son, who was detained on May 17 in Santa Ana. “These are expenses I didn’t have before, but I need to pay them — he’s my son and I can’t just abandon him,” says Genovés, a housekeeper who receives support from her husband and her other children.

 

 

Outside El Salvador’s prisons, scenes like this have become increasingly common since the beginning of the state of exception. Demand is high, and each seller has their own special bargain: $50 gets you a package with two pairs of underwear, two shorts, two shirts, two pairs of socks, two bars of soap, two bars of laundry soap, one bag of Rinso detergent, two tubes of toothpaste, a toothbrush, one pair of Crocs and 12 rolls of toilet paper.
 
Outside El Salvador’s prisons, scenes like this have become increasingly common since the beginning of the state of exception. Demand is high, and each seller has their own special bargain: $50 gets you a package with two pairs of underwear, two shorts, two shirts, two pairs of socks, two bars of soap, two bars of laundry soap, one bag of Rinso detergent, two tubes of toothpaste, a toothbrush, one pair of Crocs and 12 rolls of toilet paper.

 

 

Every day, from dawn to dusk, residents who live near the prisons offer products and services to the families of those imprisoned under the state of exception. Cries of vendors fill the air, advertising their offerings: parking, bathrooms, snacks, pupusas, coffee, masks, and plastic bags to make packages for prisoners.
 
Every day, from dawn to dusk, residents who live near the prisons offer products and services to the families of those imprisoned under the state of exception. Cries of vendors fill the air, advertising their offerings: parking, bathrooms, snacks, pupusas, coffee, masks, and plastic bags to make packages for prisoners.

 

*Translated by Max Granger

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