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Exit of El Salvador Security Minister Puts Gang Truce at Risk

  • Written by Hector Silva Avalos and Steve Dudley
  • Monday, 20 May 2013
El Salvador security minister David Munguia El Salvador security minister David Munguia

The constitutional chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court ruled Friday that the appointment of two former army generals in top security posts is unconstitutional, raising the question of what will now happen to the country's gang truce.

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The ousted security minister, David Munguia Payes, was one of the main coordinators of the gang truce, which brought about a 41 percent drop in homicides in the 13 months since it was first forged. Also on the way out is the former head of the police, General Francisco Ramon Salinas.

The court ruled that the appointment of the military men to public security posts goes against Articles 159 and 169 of the Salvadoran Constitution, both of which were amended when the government signed the 1992 Peace Accords with guerrilla movement the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), now a political party. The section of the Accords that refer to public security states that it should be "independent" from the armed forces.

Munguia's exit has led to plenty of speculation over how it might impact the current gang truce. One of the first public declarations that Munguia gave to the Salvadoran press – shortly after assuming his office in November 2011 – was that he planned to reduce homicides by 30 percent. Funes' advisers became nervous: 30 percent? No security cabinet had managed to reach 10 percent in the past decade. What the advisers – and the press – didn't know at the time was that the general had a plan.

Four months later, on March 8, 2012, online newspaper El Faro revealed a good part of that plan. The general's intelligence men – headed by Colonel Simon Alberto Molina Montoya, whom Munguia had named as second-in-command of the state intelligence agency (OIE), and Raul Mijango, a former guerrilla whom the new security minister had hired as an advisor, when he was minister of defense – were developing a pact that would facilitate a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. In short, the pact consisted of the state facilitating better jail conditions for the leaders of both gangs, if the leaders ordered those on the streets to cut down on homicides.

Those were difficult days for the journalists who revealed the pact. El Faro's director, Carlos Dada, even denounced on Salvadoran television that his reporters were being followed. According to four different sources in state intelligence and the Salvadoran police, there were also internal purges within these two agencies, which included the use of polygraphs, while authorities searched for informants who might have leaked the news to the press.

At the beginning, there was plenty of speculation over what the real conditions of the initial pact were, as well as the state's actual concessions. Such speculation was fed by declarations by both the Ministry and the president himself. Funes denied the government's participation in the pact for almost a year, until April 2013, when he took ownership of it and made it public policy before the US State Department, when he visited Washington in search of funds for gang prevention programs.

Many of the doubts were never resolved, but what is certain is that the general's plan worked, in terms of reducing homicides. In the institutional e-mail regarding his firing from the National Police, sent May 18, General Salinas wrote: "In terms of crime reduction, 2012 ended with a homicide rate that had dropped 41 percent compared to the 2011 figures." So far, no one has been able to disprove these numbers.

However, it's also true that neither Munguia nor President Funes could explain with conviction how they planned to make sustainable a truce originally forged in the dark. And it's also true that authorities ended up conceding that the gang leaders did not have to include extortion in the pact, one of the crimes that most affects those who live in areas where the gangs have the most influence.

"One of the clearest effects on the street is that now, the [gang] leaders are more established authorities, and in some cases have substituted for any other authority," a journalist who covers the gang truce and its effects on El Salvador explained a few weeks ago.

One of the first to react to Munguia's exit was Mijango, the principle mediator of the truce. The former guerrilla said that the Court's resolution was influenced by enemies of the "peace process," as he always calls them; that Munguia and Salinas were national "heroes," and that he hoped that Funes would rapidly name the successors who would lend continuity to the truce.

Saturday, at a press conference in a prison and via a press release, the gangs lamented the court's decision and said they would maintain the truce so long as the new security authorities renewed the commitments pledged by the exiting general. In a defiant tone, they added that the judges' decision "puts the security of Salvadorans at risk."

In a radio program broadcast every Saturday, Funes said that he does not agree with the court's decision, but he was obliged to respect it. He also said he found the "timing" of resolution to be strange, and that he would name the successors to Munguia and Salinas in the coming days. For the time being, the vice minister of security, Douglas Morenos, will assume the minister's post, and the current subdirector of the police, Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, will act as director general.

The month prior to the dismissal of the generals had been critical for the truce. On May 11, the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador – a meeting involving all the Catholic bishops in the country – released a statement that questioned the truce and condemned the gangs' attacks against the larger population, and also distanced the Church from the process. The document was signed by Bishop Fabio Colindres, a catholic mediator whom Munguia relied on to lend credibility to the truce, after it was rejected by three other bishops. The past month has also seen homicides go up.

[Read InSight Crime's investigation into the Church's role in El Salvador's gang truce]

InSight Crime Analysis

President Funes now faces one of the most important decisions of his presidency. While in the beginning, he resisted presenting the truce as public policy, he ended up doing so. Today, the gang pact is a central part of his rhetoric and public action.

With the dismissal of the minister who conceived of, planned, and executed the truce, the president should name officials who support Munguia's plans and who have, like the general, direct lines of contact with the gang leaders – if the president wants to keep homicides low. To put it straight, the truce made the Mara leaders partners with the state, and whoever next takes charge of the security ministry should agree to keep them that way, to guarantee that homicides start dropping again. In that sense, those who assert that the truce ultimately depends on the gangs have a point.

Munguia's plan never included sustainability, and at this point it may be too late to think about that. However, if Funes decides to leave Moreno in charge, the current vice minister is the official who best knows the few funding possibilities for violence prevention that exists in the current administration. Only an aggressive – and well-financed plan – will allow the state to intervene in the reconstruction of social ties in the neighborhoods where gangs are the de facto public authority. Only then will the truce move away from depending on someone else besides the jailed gang leaders. That being said, it may be too late to do so, especially now as the gang leaders have responded aggressively towards Munguia's dismissal.

There are another two issues to keep in mind. The first is the buzz around the elections. Given the presidential elections scheduled for next year, the opposition may try to take advantage of the instability in order to score some points.

If officials become bogged down in sterile discussions about viable solutions; if the president insists on defending a truce which he did not even acknowledge in the beginning – and thus failed to develop a viable state policy – if the opposition sets up in comfortable seats only to wait for the truce to fall apart, then it really will be gang leaders "El Diablito de Hollywood," "El Sirra," "El Viejo Lin," "El Trece," and "El Chino Tres Colas" who decide who lives and who doesn't.

The second issue is the silence that the truce – and the almost exclusive focus on discussion of public security – has created around the topic of organized crime and drug trafficking. Just like the previous two presidents, everything indicates that the homicides and the violence generated by the MS-13 and Barrio 18 battle has completely absorbed the president's attention. Meanwhile, drug traffickers and their agents in the Salvadoran state are operating with little deterrence. As for the narcos, it's clear that the colors of the ruling political party is the least of their concerns.

A Polemical Change

The appointment of David Munguia Payes came about when – after months of pressure from the US – Funes accepted the resignation of his first security minister, former guerrilla Manuel Melgar, whom Washington accused of having participated in the killing of former marines in an upscale neighborhood in San Salvador in 1984.

On accepting the post, Munguia suggested to Funes that General Francisco Salinas be named head of the police, and lawyer Manuel Chacon as vice minister of justice and security. The general also demanded the heads of Eduardo Linares, another former guerrilla and the director of the OIE, and Ruben Alvarado, of the FMLN and the director general of immigration. The Chacon option was discarded due to his past, when the lawyer defended a police officer who had assaulted a bank in plain daylight in 1994. However, he was kept on as an advisor on Munguia's team. Linares and Alvaredo were fired.

Then-vice minister of security Henry Campos, a lawyer, resigned shortly afterwards. In his place, Funes named Douglas Morenas, who was the director of prison affairs.

After three months of speculation, marked by prominent protests from the left and liberal sectors of Washington who viewed Munguia's appointment as a violation of the Peace Accords, Funes named Salinas police director. His appointment represented the return of prominent military officers to key positions in the police, many of them investigated for different crimes by the police inspector general, who has since also resigned.

In the end, Funes' security cabinet was essentially dominated by military men, and the FMLN was marginalized – a dynamic that has now changed thanks to the Supreme Court's recent ruling, and perhaps not for the best.

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