PDDH head David Morales

El Salvador's human rights ombudsman has presented findings on abuses reportedly committed by state security forces, noting an increase in police misconduct while at the same time appearing to downplay their actions.

On December 9, David Morales, who heads El Salvador's Attorney General's Office for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH), announced that between June 2014 and May 2015 the PDDH received 2,202 complaints of human rights violations. Of these, 92 percent were against the National Civil Police (PNC), the army, and other state institutions responsible for combating crime, reported EFE. Those against the PNC alone represented 63 percent of all complaints, with the army accounting for 11 percent.

The majority of complaints pertained to mistreatment, intimidation, and arbitrary searches and arrests. However, Morales noted some violations were much more severe. 

"We have had cases of arbitrary deaths, situations that could verge on torture, and we are investigating possible executions at the scenes of armed confrontations between police and supposed criminals," noted Morales. The ombudsman added that seven cases are under consideration as potentially involving extrajudicial killings.

Morales petitioned the Salvadoran government to have a "firm hand" in exercising internal control and discipline over security forces, and called on the attorney general to take action against abuses. 

Nonetheless, Morales did not reject the government's hardening anti-gang actions, reasoning that "crime has escalated the violence," which has increased both the number of homicides and attacks against security forces.

"The [government] response must be greater and more forceful, the use of force is legitimate and an obligation the state can and must carry out within the law," said Morales.

InSight Crime Analysis

Perhaps just as concerning as the increase in reported human rights violations by security forces is what could be interpreted as the tacit acceptance of these abuses by the country's ombudsman. Morales' statement that the government's response to gang violence must be "more forceful" points to a culture of impunity and the "ends justify the means" mentality within the police ranks. 

This mentality has been buttressed by increasingly tough anti-gang rhetoric on the part of high-ranking police officials. Earlier this year, the director of the PNC urged his officers to use their weapons against criminals with "complete confidence." Police head of internal affairs Ricardo Salvador Martinez even suggested if officers killed more gang members in "legitimate self-defense," it might help pacify the country.

The apparent lack of government will to investigate human rights abuses is especially concerning given recent reports of police officers, as well as death squads dressed in police uniforms, massacring suspected criminals. 

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While Morales is right to call attention to police abuses and lack of official oversight, he also appears to offer a degree of justification for these actions. Serving as an apologist for police overreach, however, may only serve to further encourage the heavy-handed and abusive actions he simultaneously condemns.