Crime, violence and political gridlock in El Salvador. Business as usual

The future of El Salvador depends on its capacity to address the structural causes of violence, to repair the broken state apparatus and to create real opportunities for the country’s youth. Español.

Sebastian Weinmann Hayek
29 December 2015

Marchers write slogans in the walls in San Salvador, May 2013. Rene Figueroa/Demotix. Some rights reserved.

Between January and September 2015, a total of 5,015 homicides were recorded in El Salvador. With a 71% increase compared to the same period last year, 2015 is on track to becoming the deadliest year in the country’s already violent recent history. In August, the monthly homicide count surpassed the 900 mark, a sobering figure reminiscent of the bloodshed that tore through the country during its brutal civil war of the 1980s. And with increased lethal clashes between gangs and security forces and a surge of criminal activity aimed at intimidating citizens, the dynamics of violence in El Salvador are starting to look less like a mere law enforcement concern and more like a crisis that resembles an armed conflict.

Violence in El Salvador is, of course, nothing new. Since the end of civil war in 1992, levels of insecurity have remained high as rival gangs spread through neighbourhoods and battle each other for the control of drug sales and lucrative extortion rackets. But while gang-related crime has been an ever-present fixture in Salvadoran life for the past two decades, this latest outburst of violence reflects a worrisome escalation of the problem that has begun to uncover the true scope of a social and political crisis blocking the path towards a more promising future.

No “intelligent hand” stops violence

Facing mounting pressure to address the surge in criminal violence, President Sánchez Cerén announced the formation of the National Council on Citizen Security following his inauguration in June 2014, convening a broad spectrum of civil society organizations and international actors to come up with a comprehensive citizen security plan. Six months later, the Council presented the “Plan El Salvador Seguro - PESS” (or the Safe El Salvador Plan), which aims to combine and coordinate public, private and international efforts to address the security crisis. Hailed by the government as a major success, the Justice and Public Security Minister said that for the first time, El Salvador had a strategy that was neither “heavy-handed” nor “soft-handed”, but “intelligent-handed”.

In many ways, the Plan’s “intelligent hand” does indeed seek to overcome some of the weaknesses of previous security strategies, envisaging cross-cutting reforms designed to strengthen the crippled criminal justice system, expand social prevention programmes and seek stronger commitments from the private sector for a more active role in providing opportunities for at-risk youth. But, despite the hype created by government officials at the launch of the plan, its implementation has been slow and uncoordinated. Violence continues to escalate as the government scrambles to find the political support, technical expertise and funding needed to successfully roll out the two billion-dollar plan.

It is a recurring picture in the long list of flagship strategies implemented with evidently little success over the years by incumbent governments. For two decades, both left-wing and rightwing administrations have taken their turn at betting on what it considers to be the magic formula to solve the security crisis: from iron-fist police repression policies meant to crack down on criminal organisations, to social-oriented violence prevention programmes and a much talked-about attempt to mediate a truce between main rival gangs in exchange for improved prison conditions and social assistance programmes for gang members.

At first glance, it is not necessarily clear why so many efforts have produced so little results. Part of the answer relates to the financial and technical difficulties that many of these efforts have ran into over the years. But focussing on the shortage of funds and expertise –as many governments have done in an attempt to justify the lack of results- is misleading.

With insecurity at the top of citizens’ list of concerns, a considerable amount of effort has been put into trying to understand and address the recurring cycles of crime and violence.

Over the years, public institutions, NGOs and cooperation agencies alike have produced a wealth of knowledge that sheds light on the underlying causes of violence, both from a criminal perspective, as well as a social phenomenon. Some have repeatedly highlighted the institutional deficiencies hampering the establishment of an effective criminal justice system, while others have focused on exposing the State’s shortcomings in terms of providing basic public goods and services to El Salvador’s largely unemployed youth, among others.

Financial means to fund security strategies have also not been necessarily sparse: figures contained in an internal study of a leading Salvadoran think tank show that between 2003 and 2013, a total of five billion dollars were assigned by the State to address public security. In the same period of time, international donors and bilateral cooperation agencies pumped an additional 640 million dollars into nearly 150 different violence prevention and rehabilitation programs. Considering the relative abundance of plans, funds and technical assistance from international agencies, the situation in which the country finds itself today is, at the very least, baffling.

Without long-term commitments, divides endure

Among this turmoil and uncertainty, there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear: in order to put a definitive end to the cycle of crime and violence, any type of strategy will have to go hand in hand with a national political accord that transcends social and political divides. It goes without saying, nonetheless, that this is much easier said than done. From its troubled history, El Salvador has inherited a deeply divided society that has thrived on a culture of – often violent – confrontation, where public debate on matters of national interest is notoriously polarised.

Nowhere is this divisiveness more reflected than in its political system. Marred by an outdated and orthodox left-right dichotomy, attempts to reach cross-party consensus to undertake urgent reforms has proven to be futile. With chances for long-term solutions almost non-existent, the political class has largely focussed on pushing through quick-fix patchwork solutions, highly effective for winning elections in political cycles tinted by clientelism and corruption scandals, but not for actually doing the job at hand.

In the latest effort to bridge the gap between the ruling left-wing Frente Farabundi Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) parties, an interparty committee was launched in late August aiming to consolidate political backing for the reforms needed for implementation of the PESS. But following the usual exchanges of accusations and mounting distrust between the political arch-enemies, ARENA recently announced its decision to step down from the talks amidst a barrage of allegations against the FLMN for its apparently undemocratic and unconstitutional governance methods.

This unprecedented security crisis has gradually exposed Salvadoran society’s greatest shortcoming: a lack of serious and frank political agreement that puts long-standing social and political divides aside. While the PESS has the potential of having a long-term impact in terms of reducing violence in El Salvador, business as usual in Salvadoran politics can only lead to the inevitable prolongation of a cycle of failed security strategies, increased violence and deeper social divisions.

The future of El Salvador depends not on new studies, strategies and funds. It depends on the ability to lay the foundations for a national accord that secures long-term commitments across the political spectrum for a plan that addresses the structural causes of violence, repairs the broken state apparatus and creates real opportunities for the country’s youth. Now, more than ever, Salvadoran society needs to shed its legacy as Latin America’s most socially and politically divided and begin to lay these foundations.

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