Budget Shortfalls Hit Salvador Police Reform

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Despite promises to expand the force, and the need to consolidate the security gains of a truce between rival gangs, El Salvador’s national police academy has run out of money to train recruits, meaning the force could actually get smaller this year.

On May 28, director of the National Public Security Academy (ANSP) Jaime Martinez told La Prensa Grafica that the school does not have the budget to provide food, uniforms or stipends for new recruits who would normally be entering training this summer. While the police academy usually admits two classes a year, the ANSP’s $11 million budget was only enough to cover one class of 400 students this year. In order to train the next class, which is scheduled to begin this month, Martinez has requested $3 million more from the Treasury, but is not optimistic that he will get it.

If only 400 recruits graduate this year, it would be a third of the number who graduated in 2011. Nearly as many (398) left the force during that year, according to recently released figures. While officials say that the vast majority of those who quit the force last year did so for “personal reasons,” nearly 20 percent (77) were fired for disciplinary reasons. Another 66 police officers were killed, meaning that if a similar number leave this year, and the ANSP does not admit new recruits, the national police (PNC) will see a net loss of officers in 2012.

This belies a pledge by the academy in 2010 that it would graduate 1,200 new agents a year in order to expand the force. The target was to reach 23,300 by 2014 — in the middle of last year, the number of officers stood at 20,600.

On top of this, on June 11 El Salvador’s Attorney General Romeo Barahona claimed that the Treasury had not granted the necessary funds for a planned communications interception center. The United States recently donated the necessary wiretapping technology to the country, and has promised to train investigators and police in its use. The project has been hailed by some in El Salvador as a massive boost to law enforcement, as it will provide prosecutors with a much greater body of evidence against criminal suspects. According to Barahona, the Treasury blocked funding for the center without providing a reason.

The funding concerns came just days after the US State Department released its annual Report on Human Rights Practices for 2011, which had strong criticism for the country’s law enforcement system.

According to the report’s authors, “An ineffective public-security strategy, inadequate government funding and training of the PNC, and ineffective senior-level leadership made it difficult to identify, arrest, and prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses and other crimes, thus diminishing public confidence in the justice system.” On top of this, they noted that widespread street violence and frequent murder of police and witnesses had created a “climate of fear” in El Salvador.

This fear is not solely caused by the estimated 28,000 gang members in the country. As InSight Crime has noted, El Salvador has an alarming level of reported police abuse, and has made little progress in addressing this issue. Beatings, forced confessions and extrajudicial killings are hallmarks of police work in the country.

And while President Mauricio Funes has pledged support for police reform, his emphasis on “iron fist” security policies have often taken priority. In a January interview with El Faro, Funes’ newly appointed Security Minister David Munguia insinuated that concerns over human rights abuses had hindered law enforcement, saying that police worry about losing their jobs if an operation results in the death of a criminal.

Clearly, the country’s national police force is in trouble, but it will likely be years until deep-rooted problems of police abuse are fully addressed. In the meantime, El Salvador has more basic law enforcement needs, like ensuring the PNC has the funding to expand and solidify the gains of a gang truce which has drastically reduced homicides in recent months.

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