How Would El Salvador’s Presidential Candidates Tackle Organized Crime?

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The citizens of El Salvador are set to elect a new president on February 3 amid an uptick in deadly violence in January, which has thrust the country’s security situation back into the spotlight.

There is growing acknowledgment of the need for a significant shift in security policy. And all the presidential candidates are discussing preventive measures to address crime and violence in a more thorough way than in years past. 

That said, detailed proposals of how best to address violent crime, the country’s two most prominent gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 — and their growing influence over the country’s electoral process, as well as the weaponization of the national police, have largely remained absent from the official political discourse.

As Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada noted in a recent interview, “finding a political solution to the structural causes that permit organized crime (mainly gangs)” is likely to be the biggest challenge El Salvador’s next president will face.

Below, InSight Crime looks at the security platforms proposed by the three most viable candidates.

Hugo Martínez – FMLN

After taking office in 2014, Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s time as president of El Salvador is coming to a close. His ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — in power for the last 10 years — has well-known politician Hugo Martínez campaigning on the political party’s behalf.

For his part, Martínez has proposed a vague security platform that’s short on detail and centers on using “all the public force to guarantee security and tranquility.” Specifically, Martínez’s platform stresses that building up the capacity of the national police and deploying them nationwide will improve security and strengthen the much-touted citizen security initiative Plan Secure El Salvador (Plan El Salvador Seguro – PESS) launched in 2015 by Sánchez Cerén, though the plan’s efficacy remains uncertain.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

His plan would “promote the greatest deployment of the state to reinforce violence prevention strategies and defeat crime,” in addition to “ensuring the state’s territorial control by combining police intelligence with scientific investigation of crimes.”

While prevention has been in the FMLN’s past security narratives, the party appears to be pushing again for a more “mano dura” approach, promoting heavy-handed security strategies and weaponizing the police.

Authorities have deployed and extended extraordinary security measures against the country’s gangs for years under current President Sánchez Cerén and those who came before him. But while officials have used these measures to explain drops in the country’s homicide rate and tout alleged security gains, insecurity remains and it’s more likely that a variety of complex factors are contributing to the decrease in violence.

Martínez himself admitted in a recent debate that “progress has been made, but not enough has been done.” However, it doesn’t appear that Martínez and the FMLN — which reached agreements with the gangs to influence presidential elections in the past — have any clear proposals to address El Salvador’s gangs or short- and long-term security concerns despite claims that this would be a “priority” for his administration.

Nayib Bukele – GANA

Recent polls show that former FMLN member and former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele continues to maintain a lead in the race for president and could even win the elections outright, running on behalf of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) opposition party.

With regard to public security, Bukele’s platform focuses heavily on prevention and finding new ways to improve the capacity of security forces using technology.

Bukele is proposing that El Salvador’s national police and armed forces help design and implement intervention programs in schools that are designed to establish anti-violence practices. The presidential hopeful is also proposing to establish alliances with civil society organizations to reduce the conditions that cause violence and marginalization and increase risk factors, among other things.

“The problem with the criminal groups that attack security forces is they cannot be treated exclusively from a crime-fighting optic, since it is a social problem where the lack of opportunities and life choices begin to produce a vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and violence,” Bukele’s plan states.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

In addition to prevention, Bukele proposed increasing the technical capacity of the national police and creating a border protection plan against transnational drug trafficking coordinated by various security institutions.

The so-called Northern Triangle region of Central America has grown in importance recently as a key transshipment point for drug loads arriving from South America amid a boom in cocaine production. However, criminal groups have in the past shown an ability to outwit authorities and their high-tech resources with basic technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS).

Bukele is also proposing the creation of an internationally-backed commission against impunity and corruption for El Salvador, similar to the anti-graft bodies in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras that have sent former presidents and vice presidents to prison, and investigated the alleged criminality of other powerful elites.

Still, serious questions remain about Bukele’s ability to confront the gangs and insecurity in the country, especially through an anti-corruption commission. During his time as San Salvador mayor, for example, Bukele made deals with the gangs and promised to give them benefits in exchange for “providing security and giving access to territories under their control for campaign activities.” This and other questionable actions would put him directly in the crosshairs of such a commission.

Carlos Calleja – ARENA

In a move that goes against much of what the ultra-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party has campaigned on in the past regarding citizen security — ARENA was the party that first unveiled Plan Mano Dura in 2003 — presidential nominee Carlos Calleja’s security proposals focus heavily on preventive measures rather than repression to thwart the spread of crime and violence.

“It is important to point out that what has been done so far has not worked, we have to look for a bold solution, a comprehensive vision … and execute more prevention programs,” Calleja said during a recent debate.

In part, Calleja has pledged continued support for the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana y Convivencia – CNSCC), which was created in 2014 to promote dialogue and agreement on public policies involving citizen security.

As for working to dismantle the country’s criminal structures, Calleja has vowed to coordinate public services and social policies, in addition to improving accountability within the national police, restructuring the institution and allocating more resources towards training, forensic capabilities and police intelligence.

Reforming El Salvador’s police force — defined in recent years by extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and death squads — is critical, but past plans to do so have so far fallen short.

ARENA and its members have also had dubious relationships of their own with the gangs during past election seasons, casting doubt on the party’s promise to meaningfully address one of the main factors driving insecurity. In 2014, the ARENA-affiliated mayor of San Salvador gave the MS13 tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for their support for the party’s presidential candidate at the time.

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