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Latin America Blog

El Salvador gets 'tough' amid worsening crime

President Mauricio Funes has appointed career military personnel to head the police and national security.  Many fear a return to failed policies of the past, writes guest blogger Hanna Stone.

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / February 6, 2012

El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes speaks at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended the war between a right-wing dictatorship and guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, in El Mozote, El Salvador, Jan. 16.

Luis Romero/AP

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

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El Salvador’s government says it is taking a radical stance on crime, using the military to police the country's most violent areas and now appointing military men to top security posts. But the changes sound more like a return to the failed “iron fist” policies of the past.

In November, Mauricio Funes -- the first president elected under the banner of guerrilla group-turned-political party FMLN since the civil war ended in 1992 -- named David Munguia Payes, a retired general and former defense minister, as security minister. On January 23, Funes selected Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivers as head of the police (PNC) (in Spanish), a former army general who had handed in his resignation just days before.

Since he took power two and a half years ago, Funes has also expanded the army by some 57 percent to more than 17,000 people, and has periodically deployed the military onto El Salvador’s streets to share policing duties.

The trend began prior to Funes' term. As El Faro reports (in Spanish), the defense budget has risen 32 percent in the last 10 years. And Funes is also following a region-wide pattern. Former General Otto Perez was elected Guatemala's president last year, while HondurasPresident Porfirio Lobo has given policing powers to the armed forces in Honduras.

But putting ex-military men at the head of both the police and the security cabinet struck opponents as a dangerous move to militarize the country’s security. And in a stinging rebuke over the Munguia appointment, members of Funes' own FMLN party said it appeared to be “a decision that was made somewhere in the U.S. capital.”

Funes’ justification for the move is simple: The country’s deteriorating security situation requires a "more forceful" approach (in Spanish). His work to strengthen the armed forces seems to be inspired by the desire to take, and to be seen taking, decisive action.

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