Need for Police Reform in El Salvador at All-Time High

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El Salvador is at a crossroads. Security forces and sophisticated street gangs are locked into what increasingly looks like a civil war, albeit without the obvious political component. In this context, political analyst Damien Wolff* considers the urgency of police reform in that country.

Changing the paradigm of police intervention in El Salvador should be the number one priority. Years of tough confrontation and repressive approaches have eroded police morale and popular support for the institution. Despite the considerable powers enjoyed by the police as a result of previous reforms — oftentimes passed in detriment to human rights — these iron-fist strategies have proved incapable of stopping El Salvador’s rising tide of violence.

The general opinion among the population seems to be that police are driven by aggressive and vindictive attitudes rather than by professional ethics. Police reform should seek to breathe a new spirit into the institution, by putting respect for the rule of law and less repressive approaches at its center.

This is part of a wider research project on police reform in El Salvador. See full paper here (pdf).

Strengthening community police has been proposed as one way to achieve this change of paradigm. Community police units have been deployed across El Salvador since June 2014, and the government’s current security plan lists “the deployment of community police in recuperated territory” as a component of its violence prevention plan. However, the state’s repressive response to the recent wave of violence means attention has shifted away from strengthening community police initiatives. Instead, authorities seem bent on punching back harder each time they are hit.

Instead, authorities seem bent on punching back harder each time they are hit.

Another crucial component of El Salvador’s police reform should be greater emphasis on gathering evidence and proving criminal offenses in court. Arrests of suspected criminals should no longer depend on assumptions of gang membership based on someone’s age, dress, or place of residence, as is the case today. This will require strengthening police capacities to investigate crimes, particularly when it comes to surveillance and the technical side of collecting evidence. Ideally, this should help police overcome dependence on collecting witness accounts to build a criminal case.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Police must also step up their battle against internal abuses. This is a particularly relevant issue in El Salvador, where the police committed countless atrocities during the civil war (1980-1992). Police brutality is once again prompting serious concern among civil society groups. Extrajudicial killings inspired by hatred and revenge are believed to be on the rise, although no official data is available.

One concern is that police are behind a fair number of disappearances in El Salvador, as well as other crimes such as extrajudicial killings. In 2014, a total of 900 police members were sanctioned for misconduct. Of these officers, 200 were sacked while the remaining 700 faced temporary suspensions. This is one example of the government showing the political will needed to clean up the police force, although the sanctioned officers likely represent a fraction of those who have committed abuses. “Plan El Salvador Seguro” timidly addresses the issue by requesting the creation of a high-level commission to investigate cases of police misconduct.

In the meantime, police reform should aim to give the force full ownership over public security. El Salvador’s militarization of domestic security is essentially a short-sighted and ineffective strategy which has failed to durably address impunity and tackle the root causes of violence. Although his party was once opposed to engaging the army, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has not shied away from militarization, not least because the army enjoys considerable trust among the population (according to the latest surveys[1]), between 69 and 72 percent of Salvadorans approve of the military. A total of 3,000 soldiers (or 40 percent of army personnel) are currently deployed in support of the police in areas where crime is most pervasive.

Extrajudicial killings inspired by hatred and revenge are believed to be on the rise…

It is worth recalling that demilitarization figured among the principles underpinning the creation of the Salvadoran police back in 1992. Out of concern for democratic governance and the protection of human rights, the US has recently become a strong advocate of demilitarization[2], to the extent that Congress has conditioned future cooperation funds to the adoption of concrete commitments toward this goal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Pulling the army out of the game might create a vacuum at first. However, this should go hand in hand with a thorough re-engineering and overhaul of the police. Many aspects, ranging from internal police structure to strategic planning, training, and career management, need to be improved dramatically, before we can expect El Salvador’s rapidly deteriorating security situation to improve.

* Damien Wolff is a political analyst who specialises in Latin American affairs. He lives in El Salvador, where he has been working with the Delegation of the European Union on citizen security issues. The content of this article and the opinions expressed by the author are strictly personal and do not reflectthe position of theEuropean Union in any way. This is part of a wider research project on police reform in El Salvador. See full paper here (pdf).


[1]Encuesta de percepción de la seguridad y de confianza en las instituciones públicas, AGUILAR Jeannette, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP), Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA), March 2013. Nationwide survey based on a sample of 2,400 adult individuals. https://photos.state.gov/libraries/elsavador/92891/Mayo2013/Encuesta%20Percepcion%20Linea%20Base%202012%20Espanol.pdf (p.49 of the document)

[2]As expressed in the Preliminary State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill adopted by the U.S. Senate on 10 July 2015: https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/hearings-and-testimony/full-committee-markup-fy16-state-foreign-operations-related-programs. Information provided by the Salvadoran newspaper “La Prensa Grafica” in its 11 July 2015 edition (page 4): https://www.laprensagrafica.com/2015/07/11/senado-de-eua-asigna-6735-mill-para-el-triangulo-norte

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