After Scandal, El Salvador Police Trade One Elite Unit for Another

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Two months after a scandal over the abduction of a police officer by members of her own elite unit, El Salvador’s national police announced the unit’s replacement with another specialized force with the same objectives and features very similar to those of its controversial predecessor.

Police Chief Howard Cotto announced the “dissolution” of the Police Reaction Group (Grupo de Reacción Policial – GRP) and its replacement by the Specialized Police Tactical Unit (Unidad Táctica Especializada Policial – UTEP), also known as the Jaguars. The elite unit will be under the command of the deputy commissioner, César Ortega, known in his circle as “Artillero” or “Gunner.”

Half an hour after the announcement, the UTEP launched its first operation, which included several arrests and seizures allegedly linked to the financial structure of the MS13. One of the suspects arrested is accused of laundering money for the gang through a minibus company.

The GRP has been repeatedly linked to massacres, and more recently the unit was shaken by the disappearance of officer Carla Ayala from their facilities, allegedly at the hands of one of her colleagues, at the end of December last year.

Cotto made it clear that none of the more than 200 men and 16 women from the GRP will be part of the UTEP. However, it will take on members from the Special Reaction Forces (Fuerza Especializada de Reacción – FES) and the Special Police Operations Unit (Grupo de Operaciones Policiales Especiales – GOPES).

Last August an investigation by Revista Factum revealed that members of the FES had participated in at least three extrajudicial executions, as well as cases of sexual abuse and extortion.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the police have indicated that they are currently conducting an internal investigation into what happened regarding officer Ayala, the Attorney General’s Office has stated that the outcome is still uncertain and the case has come to be largely dependent on witness testimony due in part to obstacles put in place by the very same police force on which she served.

Previous investigations within the police ranks have often proven to be fruitless, with few convictions to date.

The impunity surrounding cases involving security forces can be attributed to several structural factors that, in addition to the culture of violence within its ranks, can be tied to institutional capabilities and political will.

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Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, recently told InSight Crime that systemic changes are necessary to address impunity for abuses of authority by police.

“Ultimately it is about providing good evidence, having judges that are not afraid of indicting police officers, protecting these judges from very unpopular decisions and ensuring that internally within those institutions there are mechanisms that allow the gathering of the required evidence to demonstrate extrajudicial executions or excessive use of force,” Callamard said.

In this context, the decision to replace an entire police elite unit with another in the midst of continuous accusations of abuse and violence seems to be more of a cosmetic measure than a concerted effort to address the institution’s impunity issues.

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