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Jul 2, 2014 | Commentary

On June 1, 2014, El Salvador saw the second government of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) take power, a guerrilla group that emerged after a twelve-year civil war (1980-1992) to become one of the country’s two major political parties. The elections had been tight and required a second round before the FMLN prevailed over the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance. The latter had ruled the Central American republic for twenty years before first losing to the FMLN in 2009, amid rising citizen discontent with crime and unemployment.

Although failing to initiate the expected structural transformations, in the past five years the administration led by Mauricio Funes – a moderate TV journalist and party outsider – made important strides towards building a more equal and inclusive society. Currently led by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Vice-President Óscar Órtiz, today’s government confronts multiple challenges, including gang crime, violence, corruption, and the need for economic growth and tax reform. But it also has the opportunity to strengthen existing programs and policies, notably in the areas of education, health, women’s rights, and crime prevention.

One of the most testing issues facing the administration is that of security. Although crime and insecurity have afflicted El Salvador for most of its post-conflict period, over the past decade their volume and magnitude have only worsened. The murder rate, while fluctuating, remains unacceptably high, extortions stifle small- and medium-sized businesses, and street gangs – mostly the Los Angeles-born Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle Dieciocho – commit much of the violence and intimidation that occurs, particularly in marginal communities.

The roots of the current security crisis can be traced back to the Mano Dura (“Iron Fist”) policies pursued by the governments of Francisco Flores (1999-2003) and Antonio Saca (2004-2009). Launched ostensibly to crack down on street gangs, but also adopted to provide the ruling party with an electoral advantage, these largely repressive initiatives entailed area sweeps and police-military patrols while accompanying legislation authorized police to detain suspected gang members based merely on their physical appearance.

The measures proved hugely popular with a population tired of almost chronic insecurity, but their impact on gangs, crime and violence was highly counterproductive. The national homicide rate, which in 2002 stood at 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, spiraled from 49 per 100,000 in 2004 to 65 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006. Extortions also increased substantially, reaching 74 per 100,000 in 2009 alone, due to the heightened resource needs of imprisoned gang members and the ease of cell phone smuggling into correction facilities. Perhaps most significantly, street gangs were able to consolidate their structure and professionalize their operations; mass incarceration in segregated jails simply permitted gang members and leaders to socialize and refine their strategies.

In recognition of the failure of Mano Dura, the Funes presidency vowed to implement a comprehensive public security policy that would comprise social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, victim support, and institutional and legal reforms. Prevention, however, was soon put on the backburner when – following a lull between 2007 and 2008 – El Salvador’s homicide rate rose to a staggering 71 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009, and the incoming administration found itself faced with empty state coffers, public outrage, and opposition charges of incompetence. The situation prompted President Funes to renew army deployments, sending soldiers to conduct patrols and provide perimeter security at gang prisons.

The government’s stance hardened when Dieciocho members set ablaze a crowded microbus in June 2010, killing 17 people. The brutality of the attack caused widespread indignation and resulted in a new anti-gang law. The authorities continued implementing Projóvenes, an existing European Union-funded project that seeks to create local capacities for rehabilitation and social prevention in Greater San Salvador. Yet prevention was only really taken up again towards the end of the Funes administration, with the creation of municipal prevention councils and a Cabinet for the Management of Violence Prevention. Yet these mechanisms failed to develop into anything tangible. The political space for these steps, however tentative, was fashioned by what was the most contentious security measure of the Funes government: the gang truce.

The ceasefire was first announced in March 2012 and initially involved MS-13 and the Dieciocho, but was later backed by other smaller gangs. With the support of two mediators, ex-guerrilla commander Raúl Mijango and military bishop Fabio Colindres, the gangs requested improved prison conditions as well as job and educational opportunities in return for partial disarmament and a cessation of inter-gang hostilities, violence against women, and forced recruitment. The authorities transferred incarcerated gang leaders to reduced-security facilities, instated better visiting rights, and withdrew soldiers from the prisons. Although some municipalities established peace zones for reinsertion programs, the authorities remained focused on the gang leadership and homicide reduction rather than the rehabilitation of gang youth.

The truce was accompanied by a sharp drop in homicides from a daily average of 14 to six, making 2013 the least violent year in a decade, although it remains unclear whether other factors may have contributed to this decrease. Furthermore, discovery of many clandestine graves raised suspicion that gang members had begun to bury their victims in greater numbers, thus feeding the apparent murder reduction. Extortions never diminished, nor did gang harassment of the populace. The truce has been surrounded by controversy, in part because mediators and gang leaders were rumored to have received cash payments for their efforts, in part because the government consistently denied its involvement in the process, yet journalistic investigations affirmed the contrary to be the case.

Doubts remain whether the truce was in fact backed by a government that felt under pressure to curb homicides, yet lacked the capacity to do so. With a gang ceasefire, the authorities could reap its benefits and, by distancing themselves from it, also avoid being seen to negotiate with criminals. The lack of transparency surrounding the truce was reflected in public mistrust towards the measure and its purported gains. The murder rate has once again spiked to pre-truce levels, prompting concern in some sectors that the truce may have already collapsed.

The Sánchez Cerén administration’s security agenda includes, at a minimum, six items. First, the street gangs are a major reason for displacement, both adolescents seeking to escape forced recruitment and adults unable to pay extortions. Second, Central America’s position between some of the world’s largest drug producers and their main consumer has long ago converted the isthmus into a key transit zone. El Salvador will need to team up with other countries in the region and work on drug policy reform in order to curb illicit substance trafficking and its associated ills. Third, the generalized violence and extortions against businesses, especially in the transport sector, are behind much of the country’s migrant exodus to the United States. Investigative capacity needs to be enhanced and citizen trust in the justice system restored so that more crimes will be reported and solved.

Fourth, Salvadoran prisons are notorious for their overcrowding, inhumane conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence, and lack of rehabilitation programs. The government not only needs to modernize the infrastructure, improve prison management, and tackle corruption, but also ease congestion and above all introduce genuine rehabilitation. Fifth, post-war institutional reforms were undertaken only half-heartedly because they lacked elite support. As a result, state agencies remain politicized, undertrained, and unresponsive to citizen needs. The situation is particularly acute in the police, impaired by corruption and authoritarian practices, and in the Attorney-General’s Office where political appointments have impeded impartial investigations of organized crime.

Lastly, the Sánchez Cerén Presidency needs to transform its predecessor’s symbolic commitment to prevention into deeds. In addition to crafting a sustainable public policy, it needs to create a culture of prevention. This will not be easy to achieve in a country that has yet to shed both its culture of violence and its authoritarian legacy. In the long term, however, pursuing this path can make El Salvador the safe and thriving place that many of its citizens may have given up on finding.


Sonja Wolf is a researcher at the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde).