El Salvador: from dialogue to death

Since January 2015, the war opposing criminal gangs and the State has resulted in 15.000 dead. Attempts at truce have been unsuccessful. Fear has taken over the country. Español

Efren Lemus
4 December 2017
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Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved. This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

As the week got started, pupils at Reino de Suecia school heard a shooting going on. The school is located in the San Roque quarter, in the municipality of Mejicanos, about 21 kilometers north from San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital city. In a cobblestoned street surrounded by composite construction houses, dusty buildings and walls which make the place a high-risk landslide and mudslide zone in winter time, three unidentified men shot a 20 year-old bus driver. Twenty-four hours later, police detectives were back in San Roque investigating the murder of another young man on a public transport minibus.

The two homicides in the San Roque quarter are to be added to the 3.375 violent deaths which, according to National Civil Police (PNC) data, have been registered in El Salvador between January and November 7, 2017.  On average, eleven people are murdered every day. This is a homicide epidemic and the Salvadoran government is trying to face it by increasing taxes to fund a new tough-line policy against gangs. But insecurity in the streets remains. "I feel that nothing has changed. The homicides continue and I do not hear anyone say that the gangs have lowered their extortion quotas", says Genaro Ramírez, a local transport company manager.

Ramírez, a big-eyed, black-haired and white-skinned man, owns the buses that run from San Roque to San Salvador’s historic center. He has been in the business for a long time, but keeps no office in San Roque, for he fears for his life. What he does keep is a collection of anonymous death threats and intimidation messages requiring "rent" payment - that is, extortion money. A transport company normally pays between 400 and 1.500 dollars for its buses to be allowed to safely run through gang-controlled neighborhoods and communities. When their managers file a complaint or refuse to pay, murders follow. And the dead add up to the uncomfortable statistics that the Salvadoran authorities only just managed to control in 2012, when they negotiated with the gangs.

On average, eleven people are murdered every day.

The gangs lower homicides

The right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party (Arena) was in power in El Salvador for 20 years (1989-2009). During that period, on July 23, 2003, President Francisco Flores launched a security policy that turned El Salvador into one of the most violent countries in Latin America. The strategy, known as the "Heavy Hand Plan", aimed at jailing gang members, whom the government accused of being responsible for the 6.9 daily homicides registered in the country, on grounds of their outward appearance only. A year later, Flores's successor, Antonio Saca, transformed the plan into "Super Heavy Hand", and promised to throw all the "bad guys" in jail.

What these shock policies did was to aggravate the Salvadoran public security problem. During the first year of the "Heavy Hand Plan," the average daily homicide rate increased from 6.9 to 8.3. In addition, the Plan helped to consolidate the leadership of the gang members who were arrested and then were freed, a few hours later, on grounds of lack of evidence. In 2009, Arena lost the elections and handed power to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla, which ruled the country for the very first time.

The first left-wing president, Mauricio Funes, found himself facing a country where 12 people were killed every day - 300 a month. "It is a complete shame that El Salvador is the most violent country in Latin America.  We must work hard to change this. Modernizing the police is essential", he said. In his first three years in office, Funes failed to modernize the police and to control the surge in murders. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) standards, a homicide rate exceeding 10 per 100.000 is considered an epidemic. In 2010, Funes’s first year in power, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 62 per 100.000.

But then the country witnessed a turnabout in public safety policy. The Funes government secretly negotiated prison benefits in exchange for a reduction of homicides with 30 leaders of the main gangs (Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, Barrio 18, Sureños and Revolucionarios). The gang members were transferred from the maximum security prison to prisons with less rigid controls and, in a matter of hours, homicide rates plummeted. In April 2012, during the first month of the truce, homicides fell from 13 to 5.2 a day, an unheard of reduction in the last two decades. The homicide rate fell from 60 to 40 per 100.000 inhabitants - so, although the reduction was significant, the country continued to suffer a homicide epidemic, according to WHO parameters.

Luis Enrique Amaya, an international consultant and researcher on citizen security who has co-authored a study on this issue (The truce between gangs as a form of intervention on violence), explains that the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and Jamaica used the same strategy of negotiating with the gangs. Amaya thinks, however, that the Salvadoran case is exceptional: "It is probably the most successful truce in the whole Western Hemisphere. There has not been any so successful in lowering homicides".

In El Salvador, it pays to stand for the death of gang members rather than for comprehensive rehabilitation programs to reduce violence. 

But while it was certainly a successful strategy for reducing homicides, negotiating with gangs turned out not to be a good move for a politician’s popularity. In El Salvador, politically, it pays to stand for the death of gang members rather than for comprehensive rehabilitation programs to reduce violence. President Funes always denied that his government had negotiated with the gangs. Then, in 2014, after changes in his security cabinet, the truce became a dying process for lack of political support. That year ended with a count of 3.912 murders and the homicide rate rose again to more than 60.

Back to war

The current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN), began his term of office in 2015 with a bang on the table: "We do not want to follow that strategy (the truce) because it has allowed the expansion and strengthening of the gangs. (...) We cannot go back to negotiating and reaching agreements with the gangs, because that is outside the law. Gang members have placed themselves outside the law and, therefore, our duty is to persecute and punish them and let justice determine the penalties they deserve". So, a new shock policy against the gangs was born, a new "Heavy Hand Plan" now known as "extraordinary measures".

The government has restricted family visits to prisons, limited the detainees' communications with their lawyers, deployed police and soldiers in gang-controlled communities and has had a new tax on telephone and internet services passed in Congress, so as to equip the police and fund rehabilitation projects. Thanks to this new tax, the government collected last year 50.5 million dollars. The gangs have reacted with an increase in homicides: 2015 ended with 6.657 homicides, a rate of 104 per 100.000 inhabitants, making it the most violent year since the signing of the 1992 Peace Agreements. This figure has meant that El Salvador has overtaken Honduras, considered until now the most violent country in Latin America.

Two very serious phenomena for Salvadoran public security lie in the background of this extremely high number of homicides.

First, as a reaction to the government's new policy, gangs have been targeting police officers, soldiers, prison guards and their families. So far this year, 41 police employees and 20 family members have been killed. The last recorded case happened in a rural area in the department of Santa Ana, in western El Salvador, where gang members murdered a policeman, his six-month-pregnant wife and his four-year-old daughter. "I am just back from the scene where my colleague was shot. A very tough scene (...), I must tell you: what sadness and how I wish we can kill those sons of a bitch", a police investigator said through social networks.

"How I wish we can kill those sons of a bitch".

The police are the victims now, but in some cases they have also become perpetrators of gang-member murders. The new government security policy has unleashed a new spiral of violence: El Faro, La Prensa Gráfica and Factum magazine have revealed that some police officers have been involved in illegal executions, which they then try to cover up as fake confrontations with criminals. The Office of the Prosecutor, for its part, has ordered the capture of several police officers and soldiers accused of being members of a network for the extermination of gang members.

Even in the face of this, the government is defending its security strategy. On Tuesday, November 7, when the police was investigating the second murder in the San Roque quarter and the number of homicides in the first week of the month was already 54, the government held a forum in which it highlighted the advances in security and citizen cohabitation in the country.

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