During his recent visit to troubled El Salvador, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans for a $200 million security partnership aimed at reducing crime in Central America. What could this mean for El Salvador, where the government has already tried (and failed) to stem gang activity with hardline, ‘mano dura’ policies?
El Salvador is tied with Honduras for the highest murder rate in Latin America, recording 71 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants last year, or about 11 murders a day. Like other Northern Triangle nations, weak civil institutions have allowed gangs to exploit El Salvador’s geography, and make use of some of the most convenient smuggling routes in the region.
The U.S. aid package aims to address some of these issues partly by strengthening law enforcement bodies. Police Chief Carlos Ascencio has already outlined how these funds should be allocated to the police force. Some of the proposed reforms include more training for officers in how to investigate and prosecute, as well as improvements to the emergency response services. Improving border policing is another likely priority, as the country’s porous borders with Guatemala and Honduras has allowed drug trafficking to flourish.
Similarly to the Merida Initiative, El Salvador is also looking for funds to shore up police equipment and hardware. According to Ascencio, this will probably involve allocating more aid to improve police forensics, as well as laboratory research, body armour and other protective equipment.
Another important front in combating organized crime in El Salvador, highlighted by Obama on his visit, is institution-building. The police chief said that rooting out corruption in the police force should be a focus for U.S. aid.
The country’s weak judiciary is also in need of bolstering. El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes announced plans after his meeting with Obama to increase the number of prosecutors specialized in organized crime, and other complex crimes, to 150. Media reports say this would mean a ten-fold increase from the current number of such prosecutors.
However, El Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez argues that national measures to strengthen the judiciary will not be sufficient. He has been campaigning for funds to create an international commission against organized crime similar to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Such a body would support prosecutors and help ensure the transparency of El Salvador’s legal process.
On his visit to El Salvador, Obama also emphasized the importance of boosting El Salvador’s economy as part of the struggle against organized crime. Funes has said that the U.S. president had pledged to support El Salvador’s application for further funds from the U.S.-led Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which has for several years been funding projects in the north of the country. The new money would be used to help finance the economic and infrastructural development of El Salvador’s coastline. Development of coastal areas could be a crucial blow against organized crime, which uses impoverished and poorly-policed sections of the shoreline to traffic drugs, as well as migrants and weapons.
One thing to watch is how much of the U.S. aid will end up going to social programs versus enforcement aid. U.S. funds have previously supported the Gang Resistance Education Program (GREAT), a course taught in schools by Salvadoran police officers, aimed at preventing young people from joining gangs. So far ten police officers have been trained in running this program, and 700 children have completed the course, according to the State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). The new U.S. funds could go towards rolling out more integrated anti-crime initiatives such as this, in contrast to the ‘Mano Dura’ (“iron fist”) policies implemented in El Salvador in recent years. These, as Insight has documented, focused on hardline law enforcement at the expense of efforts to stop young people turning to gangs.
In El Salvador, the need for aid is obvious. Now that the funds have been promised, the question is how fast the money will arrive, and whether El Salvador has correctly identified the areas where the extra cash will make the greatest impact. The transnational nature of Central America’s gangs, and their developing ties with international drug-trafficking organizations, means that the size of El Salvador’s aid package may not prove as important as how the money is spent.