Between 2010 and 2015, Salvadorans were registering firearms at a rate of 11,000 per year. This suggests 30 new firearms were registered every day in a country where the vast majority of crimes are committed with guns. In a market that had sales of almost $2 million in 2014, four firms dominated gun imports.
The inhabitants of the world's most violent country have been spending more than $1.5 million on guns annually. Although the market's total size and the number of guns in civilian hands is not entirely certain, even just taking the quantity of guns imported legally in the last 10 years indicate there would be enough for one in every fifty residents to have one.
In reality, the total supply of guns is much greater when taking into account the hundreds of thousands that were already flooding the country at the beginning of this century. In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated there were 450,000 firearms distributed among the civilian population, about half of which were illegal.
This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published in 2013, titled "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean," cited an estimate that some 360,000 military firearms were not turned in after El Salvador's civil war. The same report noted that, in 2011, El Salvador had 600,000 firearms, only 100,000 of which were the property of the government. The remaining 500,000 were unregistered.
The figures the government collects on firearms are fragmented across a series of institutions, such as the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of Defense, the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil - PNC), and the Attorney General's office. None of these provide a comprehensive document containing statistics about the market for, and the use of, firearms.
Despite this, looking at tax data generated by the sale of firearms in local stores one can start to get a sense of the numbers. For example, between 2009 and 2014, Salvadorans spent $9.18 million on guns. In 2014, 76.8 percent of homicides were committed with a firearm.
In 2015 El Salvador won the title of being the most violent country in the world, with one homicide for every 1000 inhabitants. However, its population is not the most armed in Central America. The UNODC report showed that, in 2011, Guatemala led the region with 1.6 million firearms in the hands of civilians. With these figures, El Salvador has one gun for every 13 inhabitants, while Guatemala has one for every nine.
In the last six years, with the leftist governments of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) party in control of the presidency, the country has seen both steep drops and sharp upticks in the total number of homicides. These rises and falls date back to 2012, the year the gang truce was mediated by the government of former president Maurico Funes. 2012 was also the year with the fewest homicides committed with a firearm. The number of crimes conducted with a gun that police reported to the attorney general's office also fell precipitously, from 4,032 in 2009 to 2,536 in 2010, and from 1,145 in 2011 to 557 in 2012. In 2014, the numbers rose again, this time to their highest level in six years.
Other figures, like the drop in the number of guns registered by civilians during 2012, also appear to indicate that during the year of the truce the general population enjoyed at least a few months of relative reprieve. When the truce broke down, the numbers rose again.
Regional neighbors Guatemala and Honduras have experienced slightly higher rates of homicides committed with a firearm. In Guatemala, for example, 84 percent of murders were committed with a gun in 2010, while in Honduras the rate was 82 percent.
Lawmakers say that the law was designed to allow law-abiding citizens the opportunity to defend themselves against criminals, which means the law needs to facilitate the process of acquiring firearms.
Why does El Salvador insist on arming itself when it has such a high rate of homicides committed with a gun? The laws that govern firearms are very permissive, although they do include certain regulations that could be useful given the circumstances of the country. Annually, armories are allowed to import up to 5,000 firearms each and up to 100,000 bullets of every caliber. When the law was enacted in 1999, its supporters argued that the previous law regulating firearms, dating back to 1993, did not respond to the contemporary realities of the country, including increasing crime rates, which the new law was supposed to better reflect in an effort to provide El Salvador with "tranquility" and "real social peace." This tranquility never arrived, and to the contrary, today it appears farther off than ever before. However, the same law includes an article that allows the president, under certain conditions of rising crime or a high rate of homicides committed with a firearm, to establish prohibitions on guns in the most affected municipalities.
The motivating criteria that was used to establish the law in 1999 is still in effect 16 years later. Lawmakers say that the law was designed to allow law-abiding citizens the opportunity to defend themselves against criminals, which means the law needs to facilitate the process of acquiring firearms. Millions of dollars and 30,000 homicides later -- a conservative estimate of just the murders committed with a firearm -- not even the current FMLN government, which was previously opposed to arming the population, will think of trying to change regulations or prohibiting firearms.
The Big Sellers
Ministry of National Defense records show that, between 2006 and the end of 2015, 25 businesses had imported a total of 125,000 firearms. In this group, four businesses stood out as the dominant players, importing some two-thirds of all guns imported into the country.
The issue of insecurity has reached such levels in El Salvador that there are now more private security agents than officers in the PNC. In 2015, there were 24,100 private security guards. There is such strong demand in the market that the ALBA business group, created by FMLN party leaders, began dabbling in the private security business in 2010 to finance a new business venture to provide these services.
From 2010 through the end of July 2015, Salvadorans have been registering legal firearms at an average rate of 30 per day.
From 2010 through the end of July 2015, Salvadorans have been registering legal firearms at an average rate of 30 per day. In the most violent country in the world, the gun market is a multi-million dollar industry: the registries of the Ministry of Housing show that between 2003 and 2015, the value of gun imports in El Salvador surpassed $29 million. In 2014 alone, local gun sales totaled $1,999,245.
From 2003 to 2014, the government took in $7,696,051.47 in taxes on gun imports. This amount of tax revenue is insignificant considering that, for 2015, the private sector estimates the costs of insecurity and violence in El Salvador exceeded $2.7 billion, or 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
State data quantifying the firearms market do not detail the volume of guns that have been directed towards state institutions like the PNC and Armed Forces. Among the owners of the largest gun importers in El Salvador are figures with links to political parties or the current administration.
At the top of the list of companies that imported the most guns between 2006 and 2015 is Conavesa, which was founded on March 31, 1998. During this period, Conavesa imported 27,910 guns into El Salvador, according to the Ministry of Defense. Guido Roberto Lobo leads the company's import and gun sales operation, and Juan Carlos Hernández Ayala is the company's legal representative.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
Coming in at second place is the firm Centrum S.A. de C.V., founded in September 1999, which has since changed its name to Alquileres S.A. de C.V. During the same 2006-2015 period, the company imported 20,138 guns. The López Davidson family owns the firm. Gustavo López Davidson, who is part of the second generation of managers of the firm, has been active in the ARENA political party. In 2003, he ran as a mayoral candidate in Soyapango, one of the most populated municipalities in the country. That same year, he was a member of the ARENA party's national board of directors, the National Executive Council.
These businesses are frequently multi-million dollar enterprises. The net worth of the López Davidson family's firm was valued at $3,209,674, according to financial statements submitted to the National Registry Center as of December 31, 2013.
Gustavo López Davidson is also the owner of another gun import business: Gun Mart, which has imported 947 guns in the last 10 years.
There is another company on the list that is linked to conservative politics in El Salvador, although it ranks lower, coming in at ninth place: Talleres Moldtrok. According to investigations carried out by the Cuban government, the Sanfeliú family, which owns the business, supported the anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles in El Salvador. The investigations of Cuban intelligence agencies led to the detention of three Salvadorans involved in the Posada Carriles network that carried out a series of dynamite attacks in Havana in 1997.
Among the owners of the largest gun importers in El Salvador are figures with links to political parties or the current administration.
Third on the list is Target Sport, and the Salvadoran Security Company (Compañía Salvadoreña de Seguridad, S.A. de C.V. - Cosase) is ranked fourth. Cosase is owned by Miguel Menéndez Avelar, who was a financier of former president Mauricio Funes' election campaigns. Funes was president from 2009 to 2014. Cosase is also a multi-million dollar firm. In 2014, the company reported $19.4 million in income, although this figure includes income from other security services in addition to gun sales, such as the sale of surveillance equipment. The company's financial reports do not separate out income of gun sales alone. Cosase's net tax bill in 2014 was $986,526.90, according to the firm's financial statements on file with the National Registry Center.
Cosase gun stores go by the name Sports & Gun. One is located in the Escalón neighborhood of San Salvador, and the other is on Bernal Street. Cosase boasts that it offers "the only underground shooting range" in El Salvador. The guns Cosase imports come from Italy, Austria, the United States, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Argentina. Brands include Bersa, Taura, Glock, Bereta, Smith & Wesson, Remington, Maverick, Marlin, and CZ. They are the exclusive authorized dealers of the Remington Brand, which makes rifles, in addition to Gamo, Beeman, Crosman, and Daysi.
In the last 10 years El Salvador has imported 125,000 firearms. In 2014 alone, Salvadorans spent around $2 million arming themselves. That same year 76.8 percent of homicides were conducted using a firearm, with youths being the primary victims.
In 2010 and 2011, El Faro published two reports in which it found that Miguel Menéndez, one of the founders of the movement "Friends of Mauricio," had won contracts with the Mauricio Funes Government. During Funes' first year in office, Miguel Menéndez won $2.5 million worth of work from institutions under the president's authority. In response to a petition from El Faro, the Undersecretary for Transparency determined that of the 15 security service contracts won by Miguel Menéndez's firm, 10 were awarded in accordance with transparency norms, while the remaining five, totaling $1.5 million, generated doubts, according to the report titled "The Presidents New Friends."
Apart form being a patron of Funes' candidacy, Menéndez, known as "Mecafé," was named by Funes to the International Center of Fairs and Conventions (Centro Internacional de Ferias y Convenciones - CIFCO). At the end of his five-year term, Funes said that he would live in a house owned by the gun importer.
From 2004-2015, a period that spans the Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes presidential administrations, Cosase topped the list of private security companies that earned the most from government contracts -- $38.6 million -- according to a report by the Audiovisual Team at UCA. The firm Serconse came in second place. However, it ceased operations just weeks after its owner, ARENA party leader Adolfo Tórrez, was killed in a shootout in 2009. According to the report from the Audiovisual Team at UCA, Serconse had won state contracts totaling $38 million.
...there are a limited number of firms that can compete for government security contracts.
El Faro requested an interview with Miguel Menéndez. His office responded by saying that the commercial manager of the firm, José Ángel Avendaño Henríquez, would be handling our questions. At the time of this report, Cosase had not confirmed a date for the interview. Miguel Hernán Gil, president of the Union of Private Security Agencies (Unión de Agencias Privadas de Seguridad - UNAPS), assured us that there are a limited number of firms that can compete for government security contracts. One of the reasons for this is that firms need a certain degree of operating capital to front the expenses associated with implementing the contract in advance of when the government actually pays. "During Mauricio Funes' administration, Mecafé was the only one who won, and he continues to win, because his firm has enough money," said Gil. "I asked a friend of ours, a former guerrilla fighter who owns a security agency, why he doesn't apply for government contracts. He told me: I can't compete, because I don't have enough capital."
The Private Military
In El Salvador, seven out of every 10 homicides are committed with a firearm. More than a decade ago, in 2003, UNDP estimated that there were more than 450,000 guns in civilian hands.
After the civil war ended, a new business class emerged that is made up of the owners of the 237 private security agencies in the country and the 25 companies that import firearms.
Miguel Hernán Gil, who apart from being president of UNAPS is also the general manager of Guard Plus 24 Security, says that with the end of the war and the reform of the armed forces, which disconnected it from a public security role, the business infrastructure of the country was left unprotected. "This gave the space for private security firms to emerge," said Gil.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Gil is a retired military captain and he leads an association that brings 117 of the 237 registered private security firms together. El Faro submitted requests with the Ministry of Defense and the PNC regarding private security firms, including the number of agents and guns that are registered with these firms. At the end of 2015, the 237 firms employed 24,055 security agents managing more than 30,000 firearms: 14,253 handguns and 16,844 rifles. Private security agents outnumber police officers by 8,000: the public information unit of the PNC says that as of September 2015 they had 16,981 officers in their ranks. This does not include headquarters or sub-headquarters staff, which if you take into account brings the total staff of the PNC closer to 22,000. As of January 2015, the armed forces had 24,799 soldiers.
Although gun and private security businesses are a multi-million dollar industry in a country with a chronic violence problem, information about the owners of these businesses is hard to come by.
ALBA Enters the Private Security Business
In 2010, ALBA Petroleum of El Salvador financed the new firm Alternative Private Protection for Development (Alternativa Privada de Protección para el Desarrollo, S.A. de C.V. - ALPRODESA). The firm was founded on June 18, 2010, according to volume 2583 of the Commercial Registry. Its owners, as noted in the filing documents, are José Salvador Castillo, a Salvadoran businessman who was the firm's administrator from 2010 to 2013, and Benedicto Castro Romero, a Salvadoran attorney, who was the firms second administrator during that same time period. Each of the men registered 60 business transactions valued at $100 each for a total of $12,000.
According to an update made on July 14, 2011, ALPRODESA offers the following services: private investigations, vehicle escorts, security system monitoring and first response services, security and fire alarms, closed circuit television kits, polygraph examinations, personnel recruitment, personal protection, secure custody transfers, fumigation and extermination services, solid waste management services, and general residential or office maintenance services. For 2013 to 2016, Benedicto Castro Romero was named as the owner/administrator, and Ricardo Alfredo Ayala Espinoza as the second administrator. Benedicto Castro Romero is the owner of the ALBA Santo Tomás gas station and is a member of the FMLN's board of directors in Chalatenango department.
Between 2009 and 2014, the year of the gang truce registered the lowest incidence rate of homicides committed with a registered firearm: just 62 percent.
ALPRODESA's filing documents were certified by the notary office of Salomón Padilla, an attorney affiliated with the FMLN, who in 2012 was elected to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. He was stripped of his title just months later due to his partisan activities. The Chamber stated that he did not meet the standards of independence required of the highest court.
ALPRODESA won contracts from the National Judiciary Council (Consejo Nacional de la Judicatura - CNJ) in 2011 and 2014. Tito Zelada, then president of the CNJ, was also a member of the FMLN party, which is why the Constitutional Chamber dismissed him.
The total sales of ALPRODESA as of December 31, 2014, rank ninth out of the 14 companies we investigated, even though its only been in business for less than five years. The firm's assets and capital totals $1,070,172.74. Its total income for 2014 was $1,926,929.36. The company's income figures registered a loss of $152,000. From 2013 to 2014, the company's value went from $277,632 to $1,073,173. At the close of 2013, the firm reported a net income of $1,148.
In 2014, ALBA purchased stock in a company named J.E.C., which later changed its name to Sernase. The firm was founded on June 11, 1998, with Julio Enrique Castellanos Funes, a 35-year old Salvadoran student, listed as the principal shareholder. In September 2014, J.E.C. became Sernase and the firm now provides security services to ALBA businesses as well as some private residences in San Salvador. Compared to other companies it is relatively modest in size: it manages 51 security agents, 50 handguns, and 34 rifles. Its financial reports as of December 31, 2014, indicate that in 2014 the firm's reported income from security services was $429,678, with a net income of $19,526.
The State Shifts Responsibility
Gil is not wrong that people have a need to feel protected. In the last 23 years, since the end of the civil war, the Institute of Legal Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal - IML) has registered more than 73,000 violent deaths. "El Salvador's rate of 39.7 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, considered the lowest in the last decade, is six times the global average and is more than four times the limit of what the World Health Organization considers epidemic levels of violence," says a report from the University Institute of Public Opinion (Universitario de la Opinión Pública - IUDOP) titled "The Security and Justice Situation 2009-2014: Between Expectations of Change, the Military's Heavy Hand, and Gang Truces."
From January 2009 to November 2015, IML registered 19,437 homicides. Between 2009 and 2014, the year of the gang truce (2012) registered the lowest incidence rate of homicides committed with a registered firearm: just 62 percent. However, in 2014, that figure was more than 75 percent.
Vargas, a retired general, admits that so many guns in the hands of civilians can be counterproductive, but at the moment he doesn't see any alternative.
When lawmakers passed the Gun Control Law in 1999, they said it was necessary to help bring peace to El Salvador. More than 10 years ago, UNDP warned that when a person uses a firearm to defend himself or herself against an attack, the likelihood that the person would die in that incident rose five fold compared to an unarmed person.
In El Salvador, there have been successful examples of gun bans. For example, San Martin, in the east of the country, saw a reduction in homicides when the city implemented a gun ban. When the FMLN took the presidency in 2009, the party generated expectations that it would disarm the civilian population. The Minister of Health, Manuel Melgar, said that at the end of 2009 President Funes had a disarmament proposal on his desk that he never moved forward with.
Lawmakers continue to argue that gun access is important for the population. Mauricio Vargas, a legislator from the ARENA party, and Guillermo Gallegos of the GANA party, say that the issue is one of the right to self-defense. They admit that the Salvadoran Constitution also guarantees the people a right to life, but they say it is not the right moment to promote disarmament.
Vargas, a retired general, admits that so many guns in the hands of civilians can be counterproductive, but at the moment he doesn't see any alternative.
-The Ministry of Defense registered 61,000 guns between 2010 and 2015. Is it right that civilians own and carry weapons?
-Culturally, one can justify it, if violence consistently leaves 6,000 people dead in a given year, one could say that to try and disarm the population at this moment would generate a socio-political problem. But I do believe that its necessary to reduce and limit the number of guns in the hands of civilians because this situation is not going to take us anywhere at all.
-A while back, UNDP warned that an armed person is several times more likely to die in an attack.
"Whoever owns a gun should know to use it and fulfill some basic requirements…"
-If you walk around with a gun, and you draw it, use it. If you're not planning on using it, don't draw it, you'll kill yourself with that thing. It's a constant problem, there isn't training for when to use and when not to use a gun, so that people shoot at what they should be shooting at.
-You know this because of your military training?
-I am asking that there be more requirements, a level of required minimum training, that could be offered on weekends over a month.
-Have you introduced this idea as a reform possibility?
-For now, no.
-You talk about establishing stricter requirements, but according to the Constitution, the state should guarantee the right to personal integrity and safety. You are suggesting that citizens assume this responsibility.
-You can justify it, but I'm not saying that they should. Whoever owns a gun should know to use it and fulfill some basic requirements…[.] You have to introduce regulations until you can neutralize the use of firearms by those who shouldn't have them. There are minimum requirements that should be complied with.
In a few agencies, the names of people related to politicians and officials appear. Graciela d'Aubuisson, a family member of the mayor of Santa Tecla, Roberto d' Aubuisson, sits on the board of directors for the firm Society Group Six, as does Sigifredo Ochoa Gómez, former vice minister and son of Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, a former ARENA congressman. José Tomás Chévez Ruiz, President of the Social Fund for Housing since June 2014, sits on the board of directors of the firm Servicios de Seguridad Dos Mil S.A. de C.V. Chévez was PCN's presidential candidate in 2009.
The Commercial Registry also shows that at the firm Panamerican Services, Renzo Italo Martínez Bucciantini, who is the former sub-director of the PNC, appears as the sole owner/administrator. According to the website Gobierno Abierto (Open Government), Martínez Bucciantini works at the Administration for Investment Promotion, an executive branch office.
In 2015, El Salvador registered more than 6,600 homicides, according to police statistics. In January of 2015, President Sánchez Cerén announced that he had rejected all possibility of dialogue mechanisms with gangs to try to stop the escalating violence. 2016 has started with an even higher rate of homicides than last year: an average of 23 per day.
With an upward trend in the registered homicide rate, in the rate of homicides committed with firearms, and with the amount of money spent annually on guns, it does appear that there is one indicator going in the opposite direction: the number of seized firearms. Looking at the time period between 2007 and 2015, last year is shaping up to have seen the lowest number of weapons confiscated, down about 30 percent.
*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.