Special Report: El Salvador Enacts Emergency Security Measures Against Gang Violence
In response to the public’s clamor for government intervention to address the strong climate of violence and insecurity in El Salvador, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, has begun to implement controversial new measures to combat high rates of gang-related violence and impunity.
On April 1, the Legislative Assembly unanimously voted to approve the first phase of several aggressive new exceptional measures proposed by the Cerén administration aimed at addressing gang violence. The initiatives were approved after the murder of eight electrical workers and three farmers by local gang members in San Juan Opico, La Libertad. The massacre and the mainstream media’s lurid coverage of it escalated the mounting public outcry for government action against the gangs.
The approved exceptional measures are focused on the country’s prisons and aim to disrupt imprisoned gang leaders’ use of cell phones and other means of communication to direct and coordinate extortions, murders, and other crimes on the outside. Nearly 300 people who have been identified as heads of gangs have been transferred to maximum-security facilities while inmates with minor sentences and terminal illnesses are being evaluated for early release in the hopes of easing overcrowding. Prisoners’ visitation rights have also been temporarily suspended and random searches for cell phones and other paraphernalia are being performed with greater frequency. Additional military forces and civilian police have also been trained and deployed to heavily gang impacted regions and to fortify security at seven of the nation’s prisons.
Renewed pressures have also been levied against telecommunication companies for failing to adhere to laws that require them to block all phone signals within and around the prisons. On March 30th , the Supreme Court confirmed that the government has the power to fine telecommunication companies up to $750 million a day for failure to block signals.
According to the government, the emergency measures are accelerating the decline in the murder rate that had been on a slight downward trend since it spiked in August 2015. Statistics gathered by the National Civilian Police (PNC) suggest that the homicide level dropped from an average of twenty per day in March to an average of 11 in April. Additionally, after the PNC cut electricity to fifteen cell phone antennas near prisons, Eugenio Chicas, Secretary of Communications for the President, reported a 59% decrease in the number of extortions being reported by large businesses, noting it was too early to confirm a definitive trend.
However, others have attributed the recent decline in homicides not to the extraordinary security measures, but rather to a temporary ceasefire announced in late March in a video with an individual representing El Salvador’s major gangs, the MS-13, the 18th Street-Sureños and the 18th Street-Revolucionarios. In the video, which was recorded before the measures had been approved, the representative of the gangs warns that if the government moves forward with the extraordinary measures, the gangs will react with greater violence. However, the government reiterated its unwillingness to enter into negotiations with the gangs. Paolo Lüers, a columnist for the right-wing newspaper El Diario de Hoy announced he had verified the video’s authenticity through his own contacts within the gangs and lamented the government’s position.
Human rights advocates, both in El Salvador and abroad, have voiced a strong critique of the Sánchez Cerén administration’s aggressive approach, warning it will lead to increased human rights violations and foster an even greater climate of impunity within the police and security forces. On April 5th, Abraham Ábrego, Director of El Salvador’s Foundation of Studies for the Application of the law (FESPAD) spoke in Washington DC about the dangers of hardline policies against gangs in El Salvador, “The approach cannot be further stigmatization of youth, which is what is currently happening. We don’t believe that the treatment for gangs should be exclusion, rather, they must be taken into account and fears of dialogue must be overcome. We are calling attention to this because it’s looking more like territorial cleansing strategies through increased human rights violations, and we don’t believe that this should be the response to solve the issues of violence in the country.¨
Evidence of just such human rights violations were recently presented by Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, who presented a report during an April 25th press conference concluding that the PNC had, in fact, committed extrajudicial killings in what officers had reported as “shoot-outs” on the San Blas farm on March 26, 2015, and in Panchimalco on August 15, 2015. Morales told the press that his office is currently investigating a total of 39 “acts that could suggest possible extrajudicial killings” of 139 people. According to Abrego, the Sánchez Cerén administration has since agreed to convene a commission to be coordinated by Morales, a long-standing and well-respected human rights advocate, to ensure that human rights are respected during the implementation of the extraordinary measures.
Measures like the use of joint police-military special forces battalions in many ways seem at cross-purposes with efforts by the same administration to develop a comprehensive citizen security plan for addressing violence as a structural problem and social crisis and encouraging initial signs that the government would move away from the notorious “iron fist” policing policies implemented through the 1990s and early 2000s by successive administrations from the hard-right Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) party.
Indeed, to propel forward several aspects of the comprehensive security plan that address long-standing deficits in the country, the government also announced the creation of the Vice-ministry of Justice and the Vice-Ministry of Social Prevention, both under the direction of the Ministry of Public Security. The first will oversee attention to victims of violence, support the development of new law enforcement legislation proposals, and provide overall legal support to the ministry; the second will coordinate inter-institutional governmental programs to address the structural causes of violence.
While the FMLN party has made unprecedented strides in addressing the country’s deep-rooted historical socio-economic inequalities through increased social spending and prevention programs, the administration has been heavily constrained by a lack of resources resulting from right-wing efforts to block funding in both the Legislative Assembly and Supreme Court, where the Constitutional Chamber has struck down even modest tax reforms and has an ongoing freeze on some $900 million destined for social spending and security programs. The balance will be further shifted by massive increases in US police and military spending that promotes criminalization and repression under the banner of fighting the “War on Drugs,” despite widespread opposition from human rights, environmental, women’s, indigenous and drug policy organizations throughout the hemisphere.