El Salvador Scraps Undercover Police on Buses Scheme

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A scheme that placed undercover police officers and soldiers on board El Salvador buses to combat extortion and robbery has been scrapped due to lack of funds, despite the worryingly high rates of crime targeting public transport workers and passengers.

Defense Minister David Munguia told La Prensa Grafica that the team of elite police officers and members of the military’s Special Antiterrorist Command (CEAT) who had been patrolling buses incognito since last August had been withdrawn some months ago.

The primary reason was lack of funds, he said. The group of 132 officers dressed in civilian clothes and travelled at least 50 bus routes as normal passengers, so had to pay fares. Each officer got $4 a day in fare money, meaning a monthly budget of $15,840, reported the newspaper. Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, deputy director general of the National Police, said, “The funds for the bus scheme came out of the institution’s resources, but it was a very high cost.”

Another reason for scrapping the plan was the use of “excessive force” by the officers, said La Prensa Grafica. Although they had been trained in how to defend themselves without firearms, two members of CEAT were believed to have fatally shot a man after he carried out an assault on a bus last December.

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion of bus drivers and taxi drivers is a major source of income for gangs in El Salvador and many countries across the region, making the profession an extremely dangerous one — 625 drivers were reportedly killed in El Salvador between 2006 and 2011. In Guatemala more than 1,000 drivers were killed between 2006 and 2012, according to trade association Coordinadora Nacional de Transporte.

The lack of funding and allegations of abuse cited by La Prensa Grafica in the El Salvador police operation are major impediments to effective law enforcement across the region. The scheme also failed to address the underlying cause — that bus drivers are easy targets as they carry around large amounts of cash with no protection. The introduction of a smart card system for bus fares in Guatemala City could prove far more effective, though it was reported in May that most passengers continued to pay in cash.

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