Does Colombia Have Security Lessons for El Salvador?

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A recent visit by El Salvador delegates to Colombia points to the limits of transferring Colombia’s security strategies abroad.

The group — which included clergy, business leaders, politicians, and representatives from El Salvador’s Ministry of Security — spent three days in Colombia’s second-largest city Medellin, La Pagina reported

Once ranked as the world’s most violent city, Medellin saw a 93 percent drop in homicides between 1991 and 2014. Some Colombian authorities have attributed this to “carrot or stick” strategies like the demobilization of paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s. Others have credited the city’s declining murder rate to increased investment in social programs. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Summing up lessons from Colombia for El Salvador, Rodrigo Avila, a member of conservative party ARENA, was quoted as saying: “To minimize crime and violence we need to apply a national demobilization plan.”

The delegation’s visit to Medellin comes amid record violence levels in the country. The US Embassy in El Salvador recently declared a “new phase in the violence,” after authorities dismantled a car bomb made of “industrial grade C-4 explosives,” reported La Prensa Grafica.  

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Colombia did see a drop in homicides following the demobilization of paramilitary groups like the AUC, many former paramilitaries would go on to form Colombia’s “criminal bands,” known locally as BACRIM. These groups simply continued participating in criminal activities, while shedding the political ideology associated with the AUC.  

Given this context, implementing a similiar “demobilization” scheme in El Salvador is problematic on multiple levels. First off, El Salvador’s current government has staunchly refused to negotiate with the country’s biggest criminal groups, street gangs the MS13 and Barrio 18, following the failure of a 2012-2014 gang truce.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador Gang Truce

Secondly, the gangs do not operate as hierarchal, strictly disciplined organizations as the AUC once did — gang leaders often have trouble getting lower-ranking members to fall in line. 

Finally, El Salvador would face the same challenge as Colombia did: ensuring that those who “demobilized” had truly done so. It is unlikely that El Salvador has the resources in place to fully succeed where Colombia did not. 

Medellin may indeed have some valuable lessons for those in El Salvador looking for alternative approaches to combating violence. However, it is also true that Medellin’s declining violence has much to do with a strategy El Salvador has disowned: gang truces. Criminal group the Urabeños were able to install themselves as the top criminal leadership in the city, putting an end to infighting between rival mafia factions. This ongoing “pact” arguably affected Medellin violence levels much more than initiatives by city authorities.  

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