El Salvador’s Security Strategy in 2016: Change or More Mano Dura?

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Authors: Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo

Editor’s Note: We recently took a look at how the security forces’ response to the gangs was leading to police killings, and escalating violence. Here’s a deeper look at why current policies are failing and alternative policies that would target the drivers of violence. This article is the seventh in this series on violence in El Salvador.  

 PNC officers meet President Sanchez Ceren at ceremony presenting the police with arms and vehicles

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánches Cerén meets with officers during a ceremony turning over weapons and vehicles the National Civil Police (PNC). Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

As noted in our second post, El Salvador’s mounting security crisis has been met by a heavy-handed government response, which centers on sending the military and police into the streets to outgun the gangs and filling the country’s jails with even the lowest-ranking of alleged gang members. Beyond escalating violence and presenting extremely serious human rights concerns, this plan is simply not working. But, as 2016 unfolds, the government has a chance to set a new course and roll out an existing strategy to curb the violence.

Instead of addressing the drivers behind astronomical murder rates, current strategy aims to shoot and arrest the problem away –a well-worn security policy in Latin America known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” Throughout Latin America it has been well documented that this hardline approach is not only bad for human rights, but does not work in the long run. In neighboring Honduras, the Latin America Working Group and the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor documented in 2015 that as the list of abuses committed by militarized police forces continues to grow, “the central problem with this tactic becomes clearer: these soldiers are educated for war, not peace, and putting them on the streets turns each citizen into a potential enemy.” Studies in Mexico and Guatemala have also confirmed that relying on soldiers for citizen security for an extended period of time has not sustainably lowered rates of crime and violence. In the case of Guatemala, the United Nations has declared that greater use of the military in public security “has not resulted in visible improvements.”

In El Salvador, previous bouts of mano dura policies, including mass arrests, not only failed to bring down murder rates, but made matters worse. After being incarcerated in the early 2000s, gang members from local criminal groups were able to consolidate due to connections made while imprisoned. They then expanded their operations nationally, giving rise to the country’s current security landscape, in which two main gangs wield exceptional power over territory and murder rates have risen across the country. (See here for more on El Salvador’s gangs.)

Today’s policies might bring about similar adverse effects. As a former colonel in the military warned, “More repression of the gangs by the state only makes them more sophisticated. Applying the most severe penalties only emboldens the gangs because they are the product of social exclusion and inequality.” A commander in the Salvadoran police force warned of several other problems with the current security strategy:

You can’t kill a mosquito with an M-16. The gangs are a moving, growing target. Furthermore, by police being abusive, you’ve handed part of the community to the gang. You need intelligence to build cases, a strong judicial system and a working prison system. You also need to investigate financial crimes, but only the (now-former) Attorney General’s Office can do that, and right now, it won’t.

However, in the early months of 2016, the Salvadoran government appears to be continuing its hardline stance with the claim that the mano dura approach will work if given enough time. Vice President Óscar Ortiz recently said, “We’ve never had this level of prosecution and strategy deployed to strike and dismantle crime, like we do now. But it’s going to take some time.”

National Civil Police Officer

An officer of the National Civil Police (PNC) stands in front of a poster depicting actors within El Salvador’s security strategy. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

In conjunction with continued deployments of police and soldiers, lawmakers are proposing hardline legal means to bring down the gangs. There is currently a gang registry law under debate in Congress, introduced by the right-wing ARENA party, which would create a list of alleged gang members and their collaborators. Lawmakers say this registry would make it easier for judges to apply harsher sentences to gang members under a law that has newly defined gang members as terrorists since August 2015. As noted in an earlier post, aside from the potential to escalate violent gang tactics and perpetuate an overall rhetoric of war, police do not often differentiate between gang members, collaborators and those who simply live in gang-controlled neighborhoods, leaving the door open for wrongful imprisonment and creeping mass incarceration rates.  

Salvadoran officials are also now considering using Rio de Janeiro’s controversial Pacification program as a model to be replicated in Salvadoran neighborhoods. Despite some wins, the program has failed to provide the lasting security or social services meant to be included in the policy, while thousands of civilians have been killed by police in extrajudicial killings.

The escalation of El Salvador’s mano dura security policies, while concerning is unsurprising, given the history behind the country’s use of violent force. An experienced San Salvador-based journalist explained:

This violence isn’t new and has been exacerbated, but not caused, by current policies. In El Salvador, violence has always been seen as valid and the FMLN, once a guerrilla force, has never rejected the use of force. Theoretically, the peace accords in 1992, following the civil war, should have been a rupture with this. And for the first ten years [after the conflict], it seemed that a more inclusive society would be possible. There was dialogue and the police appeared to be moving towards a more professional force, but ultimately, a comprehensive security strategy was never created and the current government is relying on the same types of heavy-handed tactics as governments past, such as the hard, militarized, mano dura of President [Francisco] Flores (1999-2004).  

Of course, the problem goes much deeper than the use of mano dura. El Salvador’s complex security situation is complicated by a number of other variables, including lack of political will and resources within the justice system to tackle tough cases. Too often, the mentality among public prosecutors appears to be that if someone who is believed to be in a gang or related to one is killed, no investigation is required. Prosecutors also suffer from a lack of training and resources, including DNA testing.

Investigations are also halted by a lack of willingness to report crimes due to fear of retaliation. According to an activist and security analyst who works in gang-controlled neighborhoods in San Salvador, “Stoking people’s fear of reporting crimes is that there is also a fair amount of catch and release, either due to not enough evidence or corruption. People are afraid that if they report and this happens, that people will come after them.”

A lack of witness protection further deepens fears of reporting crimes. As a human rights group investigating extrajudicial executions told us, “witness protection practically does not exist. There is little attention to victims, and no one wants to come forward to speak.” Between the gangs’ looming threat to kill those that speak and the government’s inability to protect them, a culture of silence with regards to corruption and violence has been created. With a new attorney general in place, there is hope that El Salvador’s justice system can make some advances.

Compounding these problems is an overburdened prison system that is exceeding its capacity by over 320 percent, lacks rehabilitation, and fosters crime. Although prisoners are separated by their gang affiliations, deadly clashes still occur. A September 2015 report in the Guardian describes visiting a prison that was “guarded outside by the army, but inside, the 2,600 inmates [in a prison built for 800] have free run of the squalid facility, because the guards are too scared to enter.”

It is clear El Salvador cannot arrest itself out of its gang problem: in the last year the government has arrested well over 12,000 gang members, but homicide rates remain sky high, as the gangs on the street are a revolving door of marginalized young men. “We can go in and arrest 50 gang members and 50 more will take their places,” Howard Cotto, the recently-named director of El Salvador’s national police, told the Associated Press.

Another way forward

Plan El Salvador Seguro

Noé Flores, a representative of Caritas Zacatecoluca, reads a copy of Plan of El Salvador Security during a presentation of the plan to several members of the Municipal Commission on Prevention of Violence. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

While repressive mano dura policies continue to drive the country’s security strategy, public statements by Salvadoran government officials indicate an understanding that some change is needed. Speaking at a press conference in late October 2015, Security Minister Benito Lara recognized that violence in the country is a “deep structural problem” and that any government response will have to combat the drivers of violence, including impunity and lack of opportunity for youth. And, on paper, officials have developed a more balanced approach to security that would address these structural issues more effectively than current policy. 

When President Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, the government went through considerable effort to create a broad security strategy, Plan El Salvador Seguro, with a strong focus on community policing and development. The strategy was developed through extensive consultation with a wide range of mayors, business owners, churches, political parties, journalists, civil society organizations, and other actors. Many of the organizations we talked with described the plan as comprehensive and well designed.  

Plan El Salvador Seguro envisions:

  • improving the living conditions in high-crime areas to reduce the occurrence and impact of violence, including increasing job opportunities for youth and improving health services and education;
  • making the justice system more effective;
  • reducing the influence of criminal groups within the prison system, improving conditions within prisons and expanding rehabilitation programs;
  • creating a legal framework and improved services for attention to victims; and
  • strengthening government institutions to address crime

The plan is intended to be applied nationally, but will first be rolled out in ten high-crime municipalities, followed by 50 more. The implementation of the plan will be overseen by a National Council for Citizen Security and Peaceful Coexistence, established in 2015, which will receive technical support from the United Nations Development Program. However, there is an immediate problem with the plan, as humanitarian workers and journalists told us: the government has rolled out the tough side of the strategy while the holistic approach remains largely on paper.

The plan is estimated to cost around $2.1 billion over five years, and as one security analyst told us, “The government is acting like all the money for the good side has to come from beyond the budget. Some funding could come from reorienting existing budget lines. But, there’s a lack of transparency about all of this.”

 6 PNC presented with new arms and vehicles

Officers of the National Civil Police (PNC) receive new weapons and vehicles during a ceremony in December 2015. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

Even if the Salvadoran government steps up implementation of the comprehensive plan, it will be hard to change the impact of the mano dura tactics that have already exacerbated the conflict. “The government is absolutely convinced what they are doing is the right way. They say their strategy is comprehensive, that they will do prevention, reintegration. But even if this is true, after what has happened this year, they can’t overcome this carnage necessarily,” cautioned one investigative journalist. “We will still be living with the terrible consequences of this year.”

Resolving El Salvador’s security crisis is no easy task. But, there can be no hope for change unless policymakers emphasize policies that prioritize: human rights, due process, corruption, investigating and prosecuting all crimes, strengthening communities, building democratic institutions, and making security institutions more accountable, rather than repeating the failed mano dura policies of the past. By strengthening the rule of law and creating viable alternative options for youth, the government can begin to recover what it has lost to the gangs.

The existence of Plan El Salvador Seguro shows that a consensus in favor of this shift is slowly emerging, but it has in no way been firmly established. 

Given the high violence rates, as noted in a previous post, dialogue with the gangs should not be taken off the table as a potential option. There were serious issues associated with the truce, such as a lack of transparency and accountability, among several other problems which should be taken into account if crafting discussions. And while it is unclear if the gangs are currently open to dialogue, they indicated in June 2015 that they would be willing to sit down with the government.

In any case, the message of war that the government is sending to the public is dangerous and divisive: either you are for our fight or you are with the gangs. El Salvador is at a critical juncture where there is an opportunity to pave the way for the situation to take a turn for the better. The Salvadoran government should choose the path towards a more balanced and humane approach to confront the severe citizen security situation facing the country.