El Salvador will ‘Target and Disband’ Criminal Structures: Vice President

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To halt criminal violence in the country, El Salvador’s vice president has outlined additional government measures that echo repressive strategies of the past, but which also include several new approaches.

In an interview with the Salvadoran press, Vice President Óscar Ortiz detailed several initiatives President Salvador Sánchez Cerén will propose to Congress in an attempt to decrease sky-rocketing violence rates.

Ortiz told El Mundo the goal of the new measures was to “drastically reduce the operating capacity of criminal structures.”

The new strategies include a Rapid Response Force (Fuerza de Reacción Rápida) of 600 soldiers and 400 police officers, which will be tasked with “targeting and disbanding any [criminal] structure” in the country. Ortiz said officials also hope to form a team of prosecutors that will focus specifically on cases the new response unit uncovers.

Plans are also underway to increase local participation in neighborhood security by supporting the creation of citizen support committees in communities. These will operate under the coordination of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil).

Additionally, the presidency plans to present a new initiative to strengthen asset seizure laws in order to “attack the financial flows of criminal structures,” said Ortiz.

The proposals follow plans, approved by Congress on April 1, to tighten prison restrictions in order to impede the ability of inmates to coordinate criminal activities outside prison walls.

Following up on these measures, Ortiz noted the government will soon begin construction on temporary centers where 10,000 low-risk inmates will live and work. Ortiz said gang members are unlikely to be eligible for the program, at least in its initial phase.

InSight Crime Analysis

Ortiz’s comments seem to indicate the Salvadoran government is moving closer to a coordinated security strategy with more defined measures, which contain both new aspects and reflections of past policies.

For instance, the Rapid Response Force echoes “mano dura” (iron fist) policies of repression the Salvadoran government has used before. Such policies, however, have been shown to be unsuccessful at reducing crime. Although Ortiz claims the unit will be part of a sustained effort involving the Attorney General’s office to tackle and prosecute criminal structures, it remains unclear how exactly this is to be done.

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Attacking the assets of criminal groups, however, is a newer strategy for Salvadoran officials. While such an approach has shown some success in neighboring Honduras, questions again remain as to how Salvadoran police will coordinate with the Attorney General to conduct asset seizure operations.

Another unknown is how El Salvador’s powerful street gangs will respond to the government’s new security initiatives.

Last week, Salvadoran gangs declared a halt to homicides, allegedly to demonstrate that the government’s threatened “extraordinary measures” were not necessary. In an interview with the Washington Post, a Barrio 18 representative responded to the newly rolled out policies, saying, “The governments have invented these kinds of measures before, and what I have to say about it is this: Repression doesn’t reduce violence, it just brings more repression.”

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