Security Crisis Racks El Salvador, Funes and FMLN Point to Media-fueled Destabilization Campaign

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CISPES SPECIAL UPDATE: September 10, 2010

This week El Salvador's public bus system stopped operating for three days, many of the country's businesses remained closed and hundreds of thousands of informal vendors stayed home.  Last Monday, rumors began to circulate that gangs were calling for a 72-hour "toque de queda" or a halt to all activity in the country and that those who did not cooperate would be killed.  Media sources immediately covered the rumors, cultivating a collective paranoia and sense of terror within the population, even going so far asto question whether El Salvador was becoming a "failed State."  By Tuesday afternoon almost all bus routes had stopped service, paralyzing the country.  Schools and business shut down and vendors' street stalls and markets were deserted. 

Despite several high-profile acts of crime -including the burning of two buses in Chalchuapa and Ahuachapán (no casualties), a hand grenade thrown into a police roadblock (no casualties) and the decapitated head of a woman found near a school in San Martín - National Civil Police (PNC) Director Carlos Ascencio announced at a press conference on Tuesday that the national levels of violence and crime had not increased through the toque de queda period.

At the same press conference, Minister of Public Security Manuel Melgar classified the situation as an attempt to immobilize the population with terror. He announced that an additional 2,000 soldiers would assist police in patrolling public transport hubs and buses, and called for bus lines to resume activity on Wednesday, guaranteeing their security.  Despite the increased patrols, only a few routes resumed service on Wednesday and Armed Forces and PNC vehicles were called in to transport people.  By the end of the day on Thursday, an estimated 40% of routes had resumed service and on Friday bus servicereturned to normal.

State leaders have put forward several distinct lines of analysis to explain this week's national crisis. One potential cause is El Salvador's new anti-gang law, formally called the Law to Outlaw Gangs, Groups, Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature. Supposed members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have claimed responsibility for the toque de queda, calling it a tactic to pressure the government for dialogue around the new law.  The legislation, approved last week in El Salvador's Legislative Assembly with the support of all political parties and signed into law by President Funes on Thursday, makes it illegal to be a member of a gang, organized crime syndicate and other organizations dedicated to criminal activity.  The law also makes it illegal to financially or logistically support any such organization, an element of the law which the FMLN hopes will allow the government to investigate and prosecute the major forces behind narcotrafficking and organized crime, many of which have clear ties to the Salvadoran elite.  The Ministry of Public Security has also presented a second law to promote rehabilitation of ex-gang members and their reinsertion into society.  The proposed law has been presented to President Funes to study and then send to the Legislative Assembly for debate and approval.

Another possible explanation for this week's secutity situation is the recent confiscation of $10 million in cash, which was hidden in a barrel by presumed drug traffickers. Security Minister Melgar suggested that this week's national stoppage could be a dramatic act of retaliation.

Ultimately, numerous high-level government leaders, including President Funes, and members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, are calling this week's securitysituation a destabilization tactic to create a climate of fear and insecurity within the population and to paint El Salvador's first left government as incapable of governing. The FMLN released a statement, declaring,  "These actions of destabilization, carried out by interestedparties, are a reaction to the successes of the government policies that are creating positive results and delivering hard blows to drug trafficking and organized crime."  Recent security initiatives in high-crime zones such as La Campanera in Soyapango and Distrito Italia in Tonacatepeque have had positive results, reduced crime rates and beenwell-received by the communities. The discovery of the buried barrel of$10 million was also seen as a major blow against organized crime.

President Mauricio Funes, who had been out of the country for most of the week, addressed the country for the firsttime on Thursday evening.  In his discourse, he indicated that there are sectors of the Salvadoran right-wing that are interested in destabilizing his government and made reference to a recent press release by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party that declared, "The climate of insecurity that we are suffering, especially in the past days, is a result of the demagogue behavior of the FMLN government."  Funes accused ARENA of being "leaders that throw more fuelon the fire, a fire lit by drug traffickers and criminals." 

He went on to charge the country's main media sources with complicity, calling on them to consider whether they are fulfilling their journalistic duty to inform people or contributing to a campaign of terror.  The national crisis, which has paralyzed the country's economy and terrorized its psyche, is, above all, a media-induced frenzy. Funes noted that despite the public perception, this past week has shown some of the lowest rates of homicides and violent crime this year.

Adjunct Human Rights Ombudsman Salvador Menéndez Leal backed Funes' assertion that the supposed security crisis was an effort to undermine the new government, calling on the country tonot contribute to the spreading of unfounded rumors "that only have thepurpose of destabilizing and generating social alarm." 

Since the Funes administration took office in June of 2009, members of the public security cabinet, and Minister ofPublic Security Manuel Melgar in particular, have been the principal targets of the right-wing's attacks on the new government.  Melgar, who was an FMLN combatant during the war, is one of the more prominent FMLN leaders in Funes' cabinet. Within months of his taking office the ARENA party was already calling for the president to fire him and accused the rest of the public security cabinet of being unable to immediately resolve the violence and crime, which resulted from 20 years of ARENA's economic and security policies.

Concerning security issues in the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clintonrecently remarked that the levels of narcotrafficking and organized crime warrant more repressive and interventionist policy throughout the region, declaring on Wednesday that  "We need a much more vigorous US presence" in Central America. She called for a new Plan Colombia for Mexico and Central America, raising urgent concerns about US plans for the region beyond the millions currently being pumped into the Mérida Initiative (already referred to as "Plan Mexico") and the ILEA, the International Law Enforcement Academy located in San Salvador.

CISPES wishes to express our solidarity with the people of El Salvador at this challenging time. We oppose any attempt by the Salvadoran right wing, United States government or any other party to create or manipulate public fear in an attempt to assert political, economic or military control over the country and the region.We echo the call of the Salvadoran social movement, impoverished communities and the families of gang members to develop long-term, community-led solutions to violence, which will require a dramatic re-orientation of national and international funding away from repressive policing and militarization and toward social inclusion and economic equality.

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