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 , Guest blogger

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

“What society asks and demands from us is results, and the president seeks results, not sterile debates or discussions," he declared recently (in Spanish).

It’s not hard to understand why the president wants to act decisively. Last year, El Salvador had a homicide rate of around 70 per 100,000 (depending on the figures you use), placing it among the most dangerous countries in the world.

However, the “more forceful” security strategies that have begun to emerge from Funes’ new militarized security cabinet sound less like innovations than a return to the failed policies of the past. Since the end of the civil war, each successive government has moved to take a tougher stance on crime by trying to roll back the protection of suspects’ civil rights. The three presidencies that preceded Funes each worked for reforms to give the police and legal system greater powers, “arguing that the laws as they stood benefited criminals more than society,” as IPS details.

In 2003, the Francisco Flores government rolled out the Plan Mano Dura (the Iron Fist Plan), a hardline security strategy that allowed suspected gang members to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of their appearance (not difficult, given the popularity of tattoos to pledge allegiance). Over the next four years the number of gang members locked up doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.

The overcrowded jails provided a fertile ground for converting young people into hardened criminals, and being thrown together allowed the gangs to organize and regroup. It also galvanized the development of sophisticated extortion networks. Critics say the policy failed, and homicide rates have doubled since it was instituted.

Funes himself had initially moved away from these hardline measures, favoring more holistic, community-based anti-gang policies. But the statements of Munguia, his new security minister, sound worryingly familiar.

In an interview with El Faro (in Spanish) last week, Muguia called for legal reform to make the system less liberal: “Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed.”

His task, he added, would be to remove bottlenecks in the system, “to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the streets.” If necessary, Munguia told El Faro, he is prepared to lock up an additional 10,000 gang members.

This is one of Munguia's many dangerous ideas. According to police figures (in Spanish), there are just under 18,000 gang members in the country, and another 10,000 already locked up. The addition of another 10,000, quite aside from its social consequences, would have a disastrous impact on the country’s overcrowded penal facilities.

For Munguia, though, gangs are not only the biggest security challenge in El Salvador, they are the only one. He claims that groups like the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 are responsible for 90 percent of all murders. But this is far from clear. The government forensic institute (IML) says gangs are responsible for 10 percent all the murders; the police say they are responsible for 20 percent.

What's more, Munguia's approach ignores the presence of groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel, which organize much of the transport of drugs, weapons and migrants through the country, acting as go-betweens for larger groups based in Mexico and Colombia. And although the Salvadoran groups are far less violent then their counterparts in these countries, the fact remains that blaming El Salvador’s entire security crisis on gangs is not only inaccurate but means the government will not focus on tackling these other types of violence.

In the end, the military men at the helm of El Salvador’s security strategy do not seem to be bringing any innovative ideas with them. Instead, they are appealing to a well-rehearsed narrative in which wild gangs terrorize the country, and can only be tamed by ever-stronger shows of might and higher rates of incarceration, two policies that have already failed to give the results Funes says he wants.

–– Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.  Find all of her research here.

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