El Salvador’s Security Minister does not see a problem with gang leaders meeting in penitentiaries. Nor will he try to stop Raul Mijango, as part of his work with a non-governmental organization, from entering prisons. Nor will he interfere in agreements made between gangs. And he is willing, furthermore, to negotiate with the leadership of MS-13 and Barrio 18, should it help in the execution of the national security policy.
The slow speech of Benito Lara is deceptive. His insistence in surrounding the debate regarding insecurity with decades of context is deceptive. His refusal to give his opinion regarding the management of previous ministers is deceptive. The new minister is not as moderate, vague or diplomatic as he seems. Benito Lara needs to be read. When he reflects on the general problem of establishing security policies, he stabs between the lines. When he appears to be evasive or uses concepts that sound over-used, he is really affirming something.
The best proof of this is the way in which the minister gave new meaning, during our interview with him, to the apparently unambiguous affirmation that Sanchez Ceren gave to the news headlines on Thursday, June 12: “We will not continue with the truce.”
The following are excerpts of an interview with Security Minister Benito Lara originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra. It was translated and reprinted with permission. See full original article here.
In reality, the only thing this government does not intend to continue is the sterile black and white debate over whether criminals, whoever they are, deserve a truce or not. For those who are able to read him, Benito Lara says it: this government plans on disassociating itself from everything to do with the truce that has become uncomfortable or useless, starting with its name, but it will maintain its essence: the principle of humanizing the gangs, the promise to develop social policies to fight them and the need to reduce homicides to make the investment in prevention and rehabilitation politically viable. It will even participate in negotiations with the leaderships of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 if it considers it to be necessary. He announces it without fear of a possible scandal.
Your predecessors, who in fact are all still in the government, were guided by an analysis that differed from the reality with which they would be working. For [former Security Minister] Munguia Payes, his job should have focused on controlling the gang war and for [former Security Minister] Ricardo Perdomo, his efforts should have focused on drug trafficking. Which of them got it wrong?
We have to make a good assessment of the situation, and this is done by analyzing the structural problem of this country. Regarding who got it wrong, I will reference a 2011 United Nations’ report which it says that the policy of the war on drugs that was implemented in the 1950s is a failure. Who got it wrong? It’s useless to point fingers…I’m not sure that would give us any results.
I think we can all agree there has been a series of mistakes that have been made throughout the country’s history and that have contributed to our current situation, but let’s not talk about the historical, structural diagnosis. Let’s talk about the recent past.
I understand you. But you have to understand that the policies that have been put in place are not recent. They are policies that have been steadily implemented over years, decades, and that haven’t had the desired result.
Yes, but the last two ministers, when they spoke of these failed policies, said very different things. Your diagnostic of the situation, does it resemble that of Munguia Payes or that of Perdomo?
We are doing our own diagnostic.
Do you not trust the previous ones?
It’s not a case of trusting it or not. There has not been a real diagnostic, an objective one.
Well…they must have their own reasons, but it seems to me that the day-to-day pressure of the job didn’t allow those officials to elaborate a strategic plan. They were very reactive. That’s what it seemed like to me. That’s why I said that it is complicated to say, “He did this well or badly,” or, “They both blew it.” This is one of those issues I try to be careful about, to have a well-rounded perspective on. The day-to-day pressure may have been one of the factors: the need to look for an immediate way out and not see an issue that’s very complicated and that needs a strategic vision and plan.
You’ve mentioned two problems to us: sustainability and a clear diagnosis.
In this country we have between 85 and 90 municipalities — I don’t have the exact figure at hand — in which there was not a single homicide between January 1 and May 31 of this year. We’re talking about nearly a third of the country. And we have around 40 municipalities in which there have been between one and three homicides. So more or less 80 percent of the homicides are very concentrated…The main issue we need to make a great effort in visualizing a strategic plan.
All kinds of things have been said about homicides, depending on who you asked. If you asked the police, gangs were responsible for 12 percent of homicides. If you asked Munguia Payes, 90 percent. If you asked Ricardo Perdomo, less than 40 percent. All three said this was based on the crossing of variables. With this data, who got it wrong and why?
This has to do with a problem regarding structure …
What you’re saying is that using the same data, depending on who interprets it, you can get 90 percent, 40 percent or 12 percent?
Yes. I think there’s a problem in the analysis.
So David Munguia Payes saw what he wanted to see; Ricardo Perdomo and the police too. Is this ideological?
I’m not so sure. I think we need to make an effort to dignify the analysis with more tools so it can be more objective and of course with regards to the concrete strategies that need to be developed. For one reason: when you don’t do the investigation and the victim has tattoos, what’s the conclusion? That it’s a mara!
Of course, and moreover, whoever killed him was another mara…
Of course! And while this is probable, who’s to know if it’s correct. What makes it correct is in-depth investigation. In that regard, I think we have a really serious flaw, and if you’ve noticed, that’s why we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on intelligence and investigation…And it’s not just a problem for the police. That’s what the prosecutor and the judge think…It’s the system. It’s the chain. For this reason I find it difficult to say who’s the center of efforts, because we all have to change our focus regarding security. And we’re talking about the system as a whole.
Is it true that your job changes if in the end it turns out that gangs are responsible for 12, 40 or 90 percent of homicides?
Yes, because the strategy is completely different. Of course! The objectives are different.
And until now have any of the analyses convinced you?
No. The numbers that have been provided are numbers that haven’t helped in adopting policies that give us positive results. That’s the point.
The issue of the gangs will be a central part of your job…It’s an inevitable topic. The United States has put them on the same list as the Sinaloa Cartel, or Al Qaeda…What is their scale from the point of view of your office?
This is the most complicated phenomenon the country has. And although a lot of research has been carried out on this phenomenon, I do believe that we’re missing a sociological and anthropological study of the generations, and of the generational behavior of gang members. I’ll leave it there.
Do you think that policies designed to reduce exclusion will have an impact on the gang phenomenon?
Resolving structural problems in communities should have a social impact on society as a whole…I’m not saying that they have to be extremely exclusive programs. But they need to be programs that benefit everybody and see this problem as a complicated web.
Returning to the characterization of gangs: are they the Sinaloa Cartel or are they an expression of discontent more comparable to young criminal organizations? Or neither of the two? Or both?
I will stand by the idea that this is a complicated social phenomenon that in some ways mixes with organized crime. Some, not all. But we’re not talking about cartels. We’re talking of a social phenomenon. And this makes it all the more complex. Because if it were like a cartel …
…a criminal enterprise…
Then it would be clear.
Seeing as we’re already on the subject of analysis, about which you’ve been very cautious, I wanted to ask you for one more: can you explain to whoever reads the interview what the truce is?
Since this began, I have had one position: that this a concept that has been poorly executed. That’s where I start. Truces are made between belligerent forces and in this instance, this is not the case. We can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that the agreement between gangs that has taken place over the past few years has had real results. Some good, some perhaps not so good. And regarding homicides there has been a significant reduction…
Forgive me, but when I ask you what the truce is, I am referring to the fact that we have been told, as time has passed, a lot of different things: that the transfer of gang members from Zacatecoluca was due to a missile threat; that it was a miracle; that it was a process orchestrated by the Catholic Church. And we’ve been told that it was a strategy sealed in the office that you are currently occupying. David Munguia Payes told us that. What do you believe?
Given this new phenomenon, they didn’t manage the media well. They never gave a good explanation.
Of course. I think that they didn’t have a media strategy ready for it, and that had they given a better explanation, things would have been different. But they gave different explanations, and this did not help anyone get clarity. And in the end, President Funes, when it was his time to speak, said, “Yes, we facilitated this…”
So we’re clear: what you’re saying is that this was a strategy that was initiated by the president’s office, which they were unable to communicate correctly to the people.
I’m not sure because I never had a meeting in which I was told that, “This is going to happen”…
But what you’re saying is serious.
The thing is, I was not part of the administration.
What we’re asking you is what you know now that you’re minister. Has the former security minister not explained to you, down to the last detail, with dates, with documents, how exactly it participated and what its vision was in initiating the process?
No. We have limited ourselves to receiving the structures as they are, and several reports on how the situation is.
Was there a report called “truce”?
Was the truce a strategy by the presidency to reduce homicides?
I don’t know.
But aside from this policy there were political events, political actions, among them the most audacious and significant of the last 20 years, which included negotiations with the gangs; the transfer of their leaders to other prisons and the promise of some social policies and improvements in prisons, which were attempted but later abandoned. What you’re saying is that you haven’t been briefed on these matters despite the fact that David Munguia Payes, who was responsible for them, is the Defense Minister and is in your security cabinet.
Yes…But he does not work in this ministry. Look, the point is that these processes are more important to me than talking about Tom, Dick and Harry.
Ok. What did the president mean on Thursday [June 12] when he said that our government would not continue with the truce? Because I asked the president’s office for an explanation and they told me that, “Benito would explain.”
Ha ha ha ha ha … It’s the same thing that I’ve been explaining to you: we don’t consider the concept of the truce to be part of our security policy. We won’t talk of a truce because for us it’s not the right concept, and we’ve said: if the gangs come to agreements, we won’t interfere with those. And this won’t obstruct or change the security policy that we are planning.
Understood: the truce cannot be the security policy. But will you allow the mediators Raul Mijango and Fabio Colindres to enter prisons to speak to the heads of these structures?
We have no objection to individual people and institutions — NGOs, religious — entering for work purposes, as long as we know clearly why they’re going.
The mediators have said over these past two years that there was an essential element in achieving a reduction in homicides: the possibility of the heads of these structures meeting face to face in order to forge agreements or resolve conflicts. Does this government rule out the gang leaders meeting again in Mariona, as they used to do, to negotiate?
I think that there has been an error from the beginning, and that’s this separation within the prisons. It has been going on for years. Of course, if they want to reach agreements, they need some form of communication. And we will not interfere in their agreements.
Does this mean that you will facilitate them meeting and talking?
But nothing can be outside of the law.
But didn’t these meetings seem illegal to you?
No. The law does not forbid them.
Will this government maintain the agreement that the Salvadoran state has with the Organization of American States (OAS) to facilitate, supervise, facilitate, and support the process of reducing homicides through what we know as the “truce?”
Not just with the OAS. I think we have to expand … not just regarding this phenomenon but for the entire issue of security. We are discussing the possibility of having a team with not only international representation but with some prominent nationals, so that they might accompany this process: organizations such as the OAS, the UNDP [United Nations Development Program], the European Union…
Tell me if I’m interpreting your answers correctly: are you not by any chance trying to take advantage of the scenario created by the truce, its positive aspects, reforming the process and changing its name?
What we have to do is take advantage of the opportunity that in this country almost all the international organizations agree that focusing on prevention is a priority. In the Partnership for Growth [agreement with the United States], for example, prevention is an important aspect. And regarding prevention, it’s important to mention that we need to work fast to fight overcrowding in prisons. If we don’t do something soon to get these inmates to be productive, we will fail.
That’s why I start with the idea that the policy has been correct, but it had problems in its implementation. We would be wrong to create a new policy. It’s true that previous policies have not had the desired results, but we still can’t say that absolutely everything has been a failure. There are good aspects, and these have to be readopted.
*This article includes excerpts of an interview with Security Minister Benito Lara originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra. It was translated and reprinted with permission. See full original article here.