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Update on El Salvador’s Violence: Still No Easy Way Out

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Author: Angelika Albaladejo

September 2016

The Center for International Policy (CIP) and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) traveled to El Salvador in late 2015 to report on the state of security and human rights in what has become the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone.

We documented our findings and published them in a series, El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out in February 2016. The aim was to offer a nuanced explanation of the factors driving Salvadorans to flee their country by the thousands, and offer insights into how U.S. policy could help. (Download full report: English | Spanish)

What we found was a bleak and very bloody situation. Gangs, government forces, and other actors were locked in a violent conflict. Although the Salvadoran government developed a plan, El Salvador Seguro, to address the violence in a balanced manner, only the hardline “mano dura” measures were rolled out, and some government forces were carrying out extrajudicial executions and abuse with impunity. Politics were extremely polarized. 

Seven months later, much of this is still true, but there are some signs of hope:

  • The new Attorney General, Douglas Meléndez, is making waves with a series of high-profile cases, including the raids targeting the financial networks of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), the country’s primary auditing body, and most surprisingly, the former Attorney General, Luis Martínez, who was charged with procedural fraud and omission in a corruption network linked to some of the country’s elite businessmen. Martínez was a barrier to justice in El Salvador, particularly in cases of police killings. In recent months, at least 11 police officers have been arrested for allegedly belonging to vigilante squads or acting as gang hitmen.

    The new Attorney General is also investigating former President Mauricio Funes, who has since left El Salvador and sought “political exile” in Nicaragua amid the corruption charges. Meléndez has also arrested six members of the Salvadoran police for their role in the killing of a civilian during the massacre at San Blas. 

    Though these investigations and arrests are positive steps, the true test will be whether or not prosecutions are effectively carried out in the face of likely pushback from political and financial elites. 

  • The homicide rate has dropped somewhat. While the government attributes this to stepped-up security measures, the gangs attribute it to a ceasefire order by gang leadership. While it is hard to tell for sure, many analysts have hedged their bets on the latter.

Despite a few positive signs, much remains troubling:

  • The reports of extrajudicial killings and abuse carried out by government security forces are increasing. This includes accusations of executions and involvement of police in vigilante groups that murdered supposed gang members as well as crime scene manipulations and cover-ups. Security force members have also been implicated in forced disappearances.

    Right before leaving office last month, the previous human rights ombudsman David Morales said his office was investigating 161 homicides attributed to death squads and 119 possible executions between 2013 and 2016. It is positive that these cases are being investigated, but again, the proof will be in successful prosecutions. 

  • Overall, however, there still seems to be an acceptance of the killing of alleged gang members. This is exemplified by a “green light” given last year by the police director who encouraged officers to shoot gang members without fear of investigation, as well as by the fact that the police officers implicated in the San Blas massacre are only being charged for the murder of victims not considered to be gang members.
  • The government has intensified its hardline security strategy, implementing extraordinary measures and deploying more security forces to rural areas. The soft side of the government’s more comprehensive security plan still does not appear to be in effect. 
  • Internal displacement, particularly forced displacement as a result of violence, is also on the rise. Between 2014 and 2016, the country’s human rights ombudsman’s office documented 427 victims of forced internal displacement as the result of violence, according to an August 2016 report. In spite of the undeniable phenomenon of forced displacement by violence, there is “an absence of the state in favor of the victims” and “deficient documentation of the problem across institutions,” says former human rights ombudsman Morales.
  • Migration rates of unaccompanied minors and family units continue to be extremely high. July 2016 yielded the highest rates of Salvadoran family units and unaccompanied children apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since the so-called “surge” in June 2014. Apprehensions of Salvadoran family units doubled from 2015 to 2016, surpassing families apprehended from El Salvador’s larger neighboring countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
  • Salvadoran women and members of the LGBTI community continue to be targeted in specific ways by violence and impunity. In the first six months of 2016, 300 women and 18 LGBTI Salvadorans were murdered, according to official registers. In the face of continuing public health concerns surrounding the Zika virus, the right-wing ARENA party has also proposed a change to the penal code that would increase the length of jail sentences for women accused of having abortions to up to 50 years – making the country’s already draconian anti-abortion laws even more punitive. 

As homicide rates continue to fluctuate, it will be important to monitor other indicators of violence and insecurity in El Salvador, such as displacement, extortion, sexual violence, and domestic violence linked to ongoing problems of impunity, corruption, and criminal control of swaths of the country.

As El Salvador travels the long and difficult road to find solutions to its security problems, assistance from the United States will play a role in steering the country further towards or away from an iron fist approach. The U.S. aid package for 2016 included unusually tough conditions, tying 50 percent of the money for the central government of El Salvador to progress on human rights, justice, and corruption issues.

On a positive note, the State Department is raising issues regarding extrajudicial executions with the Salvadoran government. However, it is concerning that the United States is expanding support to El Salvador’s hardline response to gangs through certain law enforcement and military assistance. U.S. assistance can play a positive role, but only if emphasis is placed on encouraging dialogue, transparency, investigation and prosecution of human rights violations, and respect for the rights of all citizens.

Finally, the United States government must adapt immigration policies to address the Salvadoran crisis along with similar problems in Honduras and Guatemala. While the Obama Administration recently took some modest, welcome steps to expand access to asylum, U.S. policy must do more to recognize that many Salvadoran children, families and adults arriving at the U.S. border are refugees fleeing violence.

Download El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out: English | Spanish