Massacres ‘High Cost’ of El Salvador Security Strategy: Vice President

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El Salvador’s vice president has suggested that new levels of violence in the country are an inevitable cost of the government’s security strategy, raising questions about the sustainability of that policy. 

A day after 31 murders were committed across the country, Vice President Óscar Ortiz was quoted on March 4 saying that recent massacres in El Salvador represent “the high cost” the country is paying in its efforts to consolidate security, reported La Prensa Grafica

The previous day, 11 workers were killed in a multiple homicide incident in San Juan Opico, and two more multiple homicide incidents were reported the day of the Vice President’s comments. It is unclear if the murders were gang related.

Ortiz characterized the latest waves of violence as a reaction to the efforts of government security forces targeting criminal structures and operations. 

“[Criminal structures] are reacting irrationally and in a detestable way,” said Ortiz. 

On March 2, the vice president made similar comments in a television interview. 

“We are receiving an indiscriminate response from criminals. Without reason, they are murdering and giving orders to create terror in different places, and this is creating a negative perception,” Ortiz said. 

Regarding when the population might expect to see results, the vice president said,”It is going to take us time, it is going to be hard, and we are going to pay a tough quota in terms of sacrifices, we are already paying.” Ortiz added that when he was mayor of Santa Tecla, it took the city nine years to achieve relative security.

The vice president added that the country has “several months” of difficulty ahead of it, but noted that the government would not be changing its strategy in the face of escalating violence.

InSight Crime Analysis 

Ortiz’s comments suggest that he views current spikes in violence as the direct result of a specific security strategy. Such a phenomenon would not be unprecedented. As Mexico pursued its so-called “kingpin strategy” in the late 2000s under President Felipe Calderon, it consciously targeted high-level cartel operators. Violence spiked as power voids led to increased fragmentation and infighting among cartels.

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It is hard to say if a similar dynamic is developing in El Salvador, where the landscape of criminal actors is dominated by gangs rather than cartels, and where there is no clear-cut security stance akin to Mexico’s “kingpin strategy.” InSight Crime contributor and El Salvador security expert Héctor Silva Ávalos wonders what strategy Ortiz might be referring to. 

“What’s the strategy? There is no strategy. We don’t know anything about the strategy. The reason we don’t know is because they don’t know either,” said Silva Ávalos. 

Aside from openly refusing dialogue with gangs, President Sanchez Ceren’s administration has waffled between assuming a hardline position and a less militarized approach, stumbling to articulate a clear and detailed security strategy since he took office in 2014.

As InSight Crime has previously reported, the government has repeatedly characterized El Salvador’s record homicide levels as the result of intra-gang violence, despite reports of extrajudicial killings committed by security forces and death squads

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