US, El Salvador Tough Talk on Security Distracts From Core Issues

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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is visiting El Salvador to discuss regional anti-gang operations, as politicians in both countries push a hardline approach that may prove popular with much of the electorate, but distracts from deeper and more complex issues.

On July 27, Sessions travelled to San Salvador for talks with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, along with the country’s foreign minister, justice and security minister, and interior secretary among others, reported La Prensa Gráfica. In addition, Sessions held meetings with his Salvadoran counterpart, top law-enforcement officials and an ex-gang member, reported the Associated Press.

The main objective of his trip is to discuss security cooperation in tackling transnational crime, in particular the formation of a transnational anti-gang task force targeting the MS13, whose cells operate extensively in both countries, according to the AP.

The following day, US President Donald Trump addressed a crowd near the site of recent, allegedly MS13-linked killings in New York, where, he said, the MS13 have “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”

After implying that all MS13 gang members are immigrants — saying, “We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you and we will deport you” — the president called for further funding for immigration authorities and support for his planned border wall in order to destroy “the vile, criminal cartel MS13.”

The US-El Salvador focus on gangs coincides with the publication of a new report examining public perceptions of insecurity and security institutions in El Salvador published by the University of Florida’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center and El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University.

The report, titled “Legitimacy of and Public Trust in the El Salvador Police,” contains several startling revelations about security perceptions, the hardline anti-gang approach in the country, and how it is viewed by the public.

SEE ALSO: Special Investigation of MS13 in the US

When the 1,200 Salvadoran participants were asked what the main problem facing their community was, the most common answer was crime, insecurity and gang violence. However, 68.1 percent responded that their neighborhood was unaffected or only slightly affected by gangs.

With insecurity high among public concerns, the results suggest a significant proportion of Salvadorans are supportive of an aggressive approach, even if it goes far beyond the law.

Of those surveyed, 40 percent approve of torture of organized crime members while 39.7 said they understood it, even if they did not approve. In addition, 34.6 percent approved of extrajudicial executions, while a further 39 percent said they understood the practice, and 17.2 percent expressed approval of “social cleansing” (murdering people deemed socially undesirable) while 47 percent said they understood it.

The results also suggest the public has little faith in the police — and with good reason. Of the 13.2 percent that had been a direct victim of crime in the last year, only 38.9 percent reported the crime, and of those 70.8 percent reported that the authorities did nothing about it.

In addition, 51.5 percent responded that they believed corruption in the police was generalized or highly generalized, while only 11.6 percent thought it was not at all generalized. Nearly half of participants also do not believe the police take care of all communities, but that they instead defend those with power and wealth.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is no doubt gangs and the MS13 represent a huge security challenge in both the United States and El Salvador, and improving transnational cooperation and coordination is usually a welcome move toward tackling such challenges. However, huge question marks remain over both the motives and the efficacy of the plans being hatched by both countries’ governments.

Security policies that focus on hardline tactics at the expense of everything else have been proven time after time to be ineffective; at best yielding short-term results at the expense of long-term progress, and at worst proving immediately counter-productive. El Salvador is a prime example of this; its past “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies ended up strengthening the position of the MS13 and other gangs, while its current security crackdown has contributed to a new wave of violence.

The ample evidence of this dynamic suggests that the direction the US and Salvadoran governments are taking is informed more by political expediency than by carefully considered policy making.

The responses in the newly-released El Salvador perceptions survey give some clues as to why this may be a politically sound tactic, even if it proves ineffective or counter-productive as actual policy.

SEE ALSO: Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

When three-quarters of the population either condone or at least understand something as extreme as extrajudicial killings, it is clear that talking tough on crime and security will find a receptive audience. And El Salvador is no extremist outlier in this. A 2015 poll showed 36.3 percent of US citizens support vigilante justice, while a more recent poll suggested 48 percent believe torture is acceptable.

Trump’s comments in New York combining tough talk on gangs with calls for more immigration enforcement, despite the lack of evidence that controlling immigration will help tackle the gang problem, doubles down on the populist rhetoric by combining two easily summoned bogeymen: the criminal and the immigrant. In doing so, he conceals the paucity of either new or proven ideas at the heart of his actual policies.

The security perceptions survey also offers some clues as to the deep-rooted and difficult-to-fix public policy failings in El Salvador that the government is avoiding addressing by blaming everything on gang violence. El Salvador’s gang problem has become a convenient scapegoat that has allowed elites to protect and promote themselves while shifting blame away from the corruption in their own ranks, which is at the very core of why El Salvador’s security problems seem so intractable.

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