How U.S. Policy & Aid to El Salvador Can Help Not Hurt

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Authors: Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo, Lisa Haugaard

Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth and final article in our series on violence in El Salvador. This article provides an overview of key issues related to U.S. economic and military aid to Central America, with a focus on El Salvador, as well as the U.S. response to increased migration from Central America as the result of violence. For the authors’ recommendations on U.S. policy, please see here.

The solutions to El Salvador’s security problems are neither easy, nor immediate. It will be a long and difficult road for El Salvador to address the issues at the core of the violence and insecurity ravaging the country. But there are things that can be done to improve conditions in the short term and set the country on a path to see peace and justice. U.S. policies and assistance can be part of the problem or part of the solution.  

The Obama administration seems to have recognized that U.S. assistance needs to target the conditions – weak civilian government institutions, lack of opportunity, and corruption – driving insecurity and causing thousands of children, women, and men to flee in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The recognition of these conditions was a motivating force behind the administration’s $1 billion aid request to Congress for FY 2016. This request was also intended to support or to complement the Alliance for Prosperity, a development plan put forth by the Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments in response to the high levels of migration.

Alliance for Prosperity 

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a March 2015 meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras on the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Guatemala, Flickr

However, civil society organizations in the Northern Triangle and the United States raised strong concerns about the proposed plan and the U.S. aid package. While it did call for strengthening institutions and providing opportunity to vulnerable sectors, the most detailed projects appended to the document were large infrastructure investments. Civil society organizations worried that without consultation of affected communities and free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous populations as required by international law, these infrastructure projects could lead to unequal development, human rights violations, and displacement. Finally, civil society organizations feared more emphasis on militarized solutions to law enforcement.

In December 2015, Congress more than doubled assistance to Central America for FY2016 through the State Department’s appropriations bill, approving up to $750 million of the president’s request. This aid package showed some improvements over recent aid packages to the region, with greater focus on strengthening civilian government institutions, investing in community violence prevention, and providing opportunities to at-risk youth, as opposed to an over-focus on counternarcotics training and equipment.

The Congress also tried to address the concerns regarding infrastructure by specifying that U.S. bilateral assistance for Central America was not to be used for cash transfers or for large infrastructure projects. However, U.S. contributions through multilateral banks could support such projects.

The assistance includes unusually tough conditions, tying 50 percent of the money for central governments to progress on human rights, justice, and corruption issues in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The conditions also call on the governments to consult broadly with civil society in the development and implementation of the Alliance for Prosperity plans.

Separately, the Congress increased military assistance to Central America via the Defense bill—nearly $67 million, a full $30 million more than the Obama administration requested. (See military assistance section below for more detail.)

What’s in the Aid Package?

The U.S. aid approved for Central America this year is likely to be the first installment of an increased aid package for the next five or more years.  Here is a breakdown of assistance in the State Department’s appropriations bill:

Central America Aid Breakdown

Source: Breakdown chart by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) based on compilation and analysis of official U.S. government assistance figures:

The above totals include:

  • $299.4 million through USAID in development assistance programs to help at-risk youth, fund community anti-violence programs, help rural areas affected by drought and coffee blight, and other programs, of which at least $65 million is directed towards El Salvador. This is represented by the blue in the above chart.         
  • $183.5 million is provided in the catch-all category of Economic Support Funds (generally also via USAID) for regional security, “economic opportunity,” and “governance and prosperity.” This is also represented by the blue in the above chart.
  • $222 million via International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE). Such funding is usually focused on strengthening law enforcement, border security, counternarcotics efforts, and improving judicial systems. This is represented by the green in the above chart.
  • $28.7 million in military training for Central American forces via Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET). For El Salvador, this includes $1.9 million in FMF and $1 million in IMET. These programs are represented by the brown in the above chart.

It is unclear exactly how much El Salvador will receive, as much of the assistance is not broken down by country. So far, we only know that the country is slated to receive $65 million in Development Assistance and $2.9 million in FMF and IMET.

This aid package stands the best chance of making a positive contribution towards El Salvador’s public security crisis if the human rights, anti-corruption, and civil society consultation conditions are fully enforced; if USAID develops a regular consultation process with a broad range of civil society organizations to provide input into aid implementation and direction; and, if assistance through all U.S. agencies becomes more transparent and is carefully monitored.

U.S. Military Aid to El Salvador

Sanchez Ceren with Anti-Pandilla Officers 

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén greets officers of an Anti-Gang Unit of the National Civil Police (PNC) in February 2016. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

Military assistance to Central America will also double in FY2016, mainly to step up assistance for counternarcotics operations and border security.

Congress included $66.8 million—a $31 million increase over what the Obama administration had requested—on top of the military, counternarcotics, and border enforcement assistance for Central America included in the State Department’s appropriations bill. The defense committees provided this assistance following a direct appeal by the head of the U.S. Southern Command for additional resources. All told, Central America is set to receive around $96 million in military support from the United States.

The Defense Department money will support aerial and maritime interdiction capabilities, provide training and equipment, bolster border security and construction at military and police bases, and increase detection and monitoring of illicit trafficking. As mentioned in a previous post, violence associated to the international drug trade is relatively limited. Due to this, interviewees indicated that U.S. assistance could likely also support military and police units involved in domestic security.

In FY2013, El Salvador received around $12 million in DoD assistance, but in FY2014, the last year for which we have country-level data, it received just $2.6 million. This number surely went up in FY2015, and will be higher for FY2016 and FY2017, given the country’s security crisis and border security plans, which U.S. Southern Command is assisting.

There are many details that we do not know about U.S. military activities in El Salvador, but the U.S. military has supported several specialized units in the country including Salvadoran Armed Forces Special Operations Groups like the Hacha Command, Joint Task Force Groups meant to combat transnational organized crime like Joint Task Force Grupo Cuscatlán, and internal military units like the Zeus Command that patrol high violence gang-controlled neighborhoods alongside police.

Other U.S. Security Aid

Aside from military units, the United States is supporting a host of other specialized security units in El Salvador, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Grupo Especial Anti Narcoticos (GEAN), a vetted counternarcotics unit within the Anti-Narcotics Division (DAN) of the National Civilian Police (PNC), that works with the Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) units, units supported by INL and led by the FBI targeting criminal gangs.  
  • Transnational Criminal Investigative Units (TCIU), vetted units managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), through the Department of Homeland Security, intended to dismantle transnational criminal organizations involved in illicit trafficking, particularly human smuggling.

Other vetted unit programs run through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) throughout Central America, including in El Salvador, aim to counter money laundering and human, drug, firearm, and bulk cash smuggling. The Defense Department sometimes assists in these operations. As has been the case in other countries, vetted units have had some law enforcement successes, although they rarely have the effect of improving the country’s overall security institutions’ accountability and divert limited resources away from efforts to improve the entire force. Investigations into these kinds of crimes are important, but the larger security picture must also be kept in mind.

Given the current security landscape, the temptation to throw more firepower at the gangs is understandable. But it has proven counterproductive and deadly for the population at large. Real political and financial investment in community-level solutions and adhering to the steps laid out in the conditions put forth by the U.S. Congress – including reforming police institutions, improving the justice system, and combating corruption – will make a sustainable difference. Ultimately, the security approach must work in tandem with development plans, so that reasonably lucrative and safe alternatives exist, as the cost of engaging in criminal activity theoretically increases due to stepped up law enforcement efforts.  

U.S. Response to Migrants and Refugees

The response to Central American migrants and refugees arriving to the United States has remained controversial, contradictory, and often heartless. The congressional debate over how to address the rising numbers of Central American migrants has “retreated from possible comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, to more recent piecemeal immigration bills” in the last year, according to a recent report by the Latin America Working Group.   

The Obama administration issued important executive orders that could provide relief from deportation to some four million people, many of them from Central America, but those measures remain largely blocked in the courts. Moreover, those measures do not provide relief for the children, teenagers, and adults who arrived after January 1, 2014 – and so they do not address many of the unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle. For many Central American families, the fear of deportation has only increased.

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“Not 1 More Deportation!” Immigrant rights activists gather in New York City in April 2014 to protest the 2 millionth deportation of an undocumented immigrant by the Obama administration. Photo credit: Michael Fleshman, Flickr


The U.S. government has focused on stemming the flow of migrants reaching the United States: through a domestic strategy of “deterrence,” most visible in the detention and fast-track deportation of migrants back to their home countries and by encouraging the Mexican government to apprehend, detain, and deport Central American migrants before they reach the southern border of the United States. In addition, the Congress conditioned 25 percent of aid going to Northern Triangle countries for FY2016 on efforts to increase border security and run campaigns to try and deter migrants from leaving their countries.

The United States established an “in-country processing program” in 2014 to allow a small number of families in the United States to apply for asylum for their children in Central America. As of the end of December 2015, a total of 6,663 asylum applications had been received, 5,797 or 76 percent of these applications were from El Salvador.

The first six children, all from El Salvador, were approved to travel legally to the United States under this program in December 2015. In January 2016, the U.S. government also confirmed the expansion of the U.S. refugee resettlement program as a mechanism to process and screen Central American refugees in the region, providing refugees with a legal alternative to the dangerous undocumented journey. However, these programs have been slow moving and, even if fully implemented, barely begin to address the protection needs of countless at-risk children, youth, and adults.

The U.S. response to the tens of thousands of children, teenagers, families, and adults arriving to the United States from the Northern Triangle in the last several years does not fully recognize the reality that many are not economic migrants, but refugees fleeing violence.

In light of the escalating violence fueling the humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing the Northern Triangle countries, human rights organizations and members of the U.S. Congress have called on the Obama administration to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) as part of a much-needed humanitarian relief package.

U.S. deportation policies, as well as U.S. pressure on the Mexican government to increase immigration enforcement, are problematic in terms of respect for international protections for refugees. Deportations from the United States and Mexico of those Central Americans who should have access to asylum also complicates efforts to address public security in the Northern Triangle countries, by putting additional pressure on Central American governments unable to protect their citizens from rampant violence.

New Developments

Salvadoran security forces’ exclusive heavy-handed approach to internal security has led to an increase in extrajudicial executions, the emergence of vigilante ‘death squads,’ and an overall escalation of violence with the gangs and the population. From our interviews, it did seem that of abuses allegedly committed by official security forces, the police were responsible for the larger percentage of abuses. We also heard reports about the Salvadoran military’s involvement in arms and drug trafficking, disappearances, and excessive use of force on patrols. 

(See our earlier posts on El Salvador’s security forces and iron-fist security strategy)

On March 12, Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Céren made a statement saying the government will double down on its current security strategy and employ a set of extraordinary measures, which would include deploying more military units onto the street. Government officials also said they are considering implementing a “state of exception,” which, as InSight Crime reported, would “provide authorities with broad powers to suppress public meetings, restrict freedom of movement, and monitor mail, e-mail, telephone, and social media communications.” It would also allow police to detain people without cause for undefined periods of time. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly must approve the decision to declare a “state of exception,” which is currently under debate

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President Salvador Sánchez Cerén speaks alongside Police Chief Howard Cotto during a February 2016 event for the National Civil Police (PNC). Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

The leaders of the country’s three main gang factions – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and Sureños – allegedly released a video on March 26 announcing a nationwide halt to homicides committed by their members, an order meant “to demonstrate to the public, the government, and international agencies in our country that there is no need to implement [“state of exception”] measures.” In urging the Salvadoran government to hold off on applying the proposed measures, the alleged gang spokesperson argued “the government can’t get rid of the gangs, because we are a part of the community in our country.” Salvadoran Police Chief Howard Cotto has stated that there will be “no negotiation of any kind with any criminal structure,” and Presidential Spokesperson Eugenio Chicas has affirmed that the Salvador Sánchez Céren administration “will not grant any truce in the fight against criminals, and will apply the necessary measures to protect the population.”  Yet dialogue with all sectors in El Salvador, including gang members, is clearly needed.

At this difficult moment in El Salvador, increased U.S. assistance has the chance to help or hurt. See our recommendations here. Through USAID, the United States is planning to invest increased resources to strengthen communities’ social fabric through community violence prevention and other programs. This is positive. At the same time, however, the United States is expanding support to El Salvador’s hardline response to gangs through certain law enforcement and military assistance. This includes support for the “surge” of police with military support into crime-ridden neighborhoods. While this responds to pressure from the Salvadoran public for results in the fight against the gangs, it is concerning as it underwrites an expanded role of the Salvadoran military in law enforcement, a shift that once made will be difficult to turn back. 
U.S. assistance and policy should not go down the path of encouraging a militarized role for law enforcement. Moreover, the U.S. Embassy should encourage investigation and prosecution of suspected extrajudicial executions and other serious abuses, ensure that its diplomacy discourages any “green lights” or incentives for security forces to commit abuses, and expand its contacts and consultation with civil society groups investigating or monitoring abuses. This is how U.S. assistance can help and play a positive role.

When looking at solutions to El Salvador’s violence, there is no easy way out. It is not merely a question of security policy; it is one of improving the quality of education, establishing ties and trust between communities and the state, raising school enrollment, and providing substantive income for a population that currently relies on remittances and the informal sector, among a long list of other needs. This is all very difficult to achieve. But a good place for the government to start would be to listen to its people and be honest and transparent with them about the security situation. The Salvadoran government must hear not only from those calling for war, but from those who see a different way forward, including those who are perpetuating the violence.

Tensions are high and dynamics are complicated, but without dialogue, transparency, and respect for the rights of all citizens, El Salvador will not be able to resolve its security crisis.