El Salvador Cuts Murders, But Where is Police Reform?

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El Salvador is rolling out a new security strategy for lowering gang violence, but the new approach places little emphasis on police reform, which could hurt its chance of long-term success.

In March, the country saw a dramatic fall in violence — with 241 killings, the murder rate was down 40 percent from the previous month, and 30 percent on-year. This has been attributed to the government’s new security strategy, led by recently-appointed David Munguia. However, it may be that in the security minister’s rush to achieve statistically quantifiable success, he has focused on measures which reduce violence in the short term, while neglecting longer-term projects like much-needed reform to the national police (PNC).

Even in a region where police are often accused of being part of the crime problem, rather than part of the solution, El Salvador’s police stand out for their brutal tactics. Of 20 Latin American countries surveyed in 2008 by Vanderbilt University’s Americas Barometer project, El Salvador had the highest incidence of reported police abuse (when results were controlled for demographic factors that could influence the result). More than 8 percent of the population said they had been mistreated by the police in the last year. This ranges from harassment and arbitrary detention, to much more serious incidents. In 2010, 20 officers were accused of homicide, and the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH) received 46 complaints of torture.

Much of this is directed against young men suspected of belonging to gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Americas Barometer notes that across the countries surveyed, younger men in urban areas are disproportionately the targets of police abuse. In El Salvador, not only is nearly 60 percent of the population under the age of 30, but the country suffers from an epidemic level street gangs. These groups are made up predominantly of young men, giving an added friction to this demographic group’s interactions with police. Oscar Humberto Luna, who heads the PDDH, told El Faro that most complaints against the police cite excessive use of force, describing one common scenario: “the police choose a young person, they hit him, [and then] they set him free.” The website notes that there were more than 1,700 complaints against Salvadoran police from January to November last year, which it says represents a mere fraction of what is going on on the streets of the country.

This kind of abuse, aside from its moral implications, is deeply damaging for public security. The US State Department’s 2010 human rights report notes that “An ineffective public security strategy, inadequate government funding and training of the PNC, and ineffective senior-level leadership” made it difficult to investigate rights abuses committed by this body, which hurts public confidence in the justice system. Young people alienated by police are far more likely to turn to gangs, and it will be hard to bring about improvements in public security if the public in general does not trust the police to report crimes. El Faro says that, for a large sector of Salvadoran society, the line between gang members, police, drug traffickers and soldiers is not well defined, and that some feel just as afraid of police and soldiers as of gang members.

Funes has recognized the problem, stating his commitment to cleaning up the police force and firing corrupt officers. Some 350 officers have been fired for crimes and serious misconduct since he took office in mid-2009. However, the security plans make little mention of reform to the national police (PNC). Indeed, in an interview with El Faro in January, when asked what improvements needed to be made to the police force, Munguia said that they needed a morale boost. He said agents complain that “human rights organizations have become a type of sword of Damocles.” “When we have a clash or carry out an operation and a gang member or criminal ends up dead or wounder, we get fired,” police told him.

When he took office in November, Munguia promised to resign if he did not manage to cut the murder rate by 30 percent in a year. Many commentators, including InSight Crime, greeted this with skepticism, but Munguia’s gamble appears to be paying off, for now, with March’s murder rate dropping even lower than he promised.

However, it is too early to say that the security minister’s job is safe. Last month’s plummeting violence has been attributed to a deal brokered between the country’s two biggest gangs, the MS-13 and Barrio-18. Nobody has been able to give an indication of how long this deal will last, or what the consequences will be if it is broken.

Previous governments have set similarly ambitious targets. The government of President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) pledged a 50 percent reduction in violent crime within three years, which scholar Edgardo Alberto Amaya described in a 2006 publication as “utterly unrealistic” and evidence of a major failure in security planning. He relates this focus on crime statistics to quantify security policy to the preference for repressive measures to fight crime. The Flores administration implemented a security strategy, based on a US program, that used data on arrests and crime frequency to judge the performance of regional police chiefs. Amaya says that this encouraged arbitrary detentions: the number of arrests almost doubled from 22,000 to nearly 42,000 between 1999 and 2001. At the same time the number of complaints against the police increased, rising almost 20 percent between 1999 and 2000 to over 61,500.

The truce does seem to represent new thinking on the issue of violence in El Salvador, although it could set a dangerous precedent, encouraging gangs to increase violence in order to demand more concessions from the government. Now, in the wake of controversy over the gang deal, Funes has promised the country a “national agreement” to eradicate violence and insecurity, with work to reintegrate gang members into society and provide more opportunities for young people. Even if the truce holds, broader measures like this and police reform will be necessary for long term security in El Salvador.

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