This is the second commentary in a series that will attempt to assess various areas where El Salvador has made progress and others where resistance to change, underdeveloped institutions, and a weak culture of respect for the rule of law have hindered progress.
The recent acquittal of eight Salvadoran police officers accused of committing an extrajudicial killing raises serious questions about El Salvador’s ability to successfully prosecute abusive members of the security forces. Coupled with an apparent lack of political will to hold the police and military accountable for committing abuses, El Salvador’s tolerance for an “iron fist” approach to policing will likely only continue to exacerbate violence.
On September 22, a Salvadoran judge acquitted eight members of a specialized unit of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil, PNC) of murder charges, related to the death of twenty-year-old Dennis Martínez Hernández in what is widely known as the San Blas case, a case in which eight people were killed during a police shoot-out at a coffee farm in March 2015. In his ruling, the judge asserted that the police had indeed illegally executed Martinez, noting, “Martinez was not a gang member, but an employee of the San Blas farm, that he was completely defenseless, he did not resist and that he begged the police officers for his life.”
However, because prosecutors could not prove who had fired the bullets that killed Martinez, the court ruled against convicting any of the police agents of homicide. “Clearly, the prosecution could have done more,” the judge said.
As previously noted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), while it was positive that the Attorney General’s office was pursuing the San Blas case, the prosecution had a limited focus: while El Salvador’s Ombudsman’s Office found there was significant evidence that all of those killed at San Blas were likely victims of extrajudicial executions at the hands of the police, the Attorney General’s Office would only charge police agents with the death of a single person, Martínez.
The San Blas killings are a disconcerting example of how El Salvador’s aggressive, militarized response to rising gang violence has fostered abusive practices by the security forces.
The arrest and prosecution of the eight police officials for their involvement in the San Blas case was a first step — necessary but not sufficient — in El Salvador’s efforts to address police abuse. However, the failure to secure any convictions, even in this limited of a case, sends a strong message that other security officials can continue to act outside the boundaries of the law without fear of reprisal.
International and local human rights groups in El Salvador have been vocal in expressing their concerns about an apparent pattern of extrajudicial killings, and the government’s inability — or unwillingness — to hold the police and military accountable for abuses. Simultaneously, investigative reporting by Salvadoran digital news outlets, El Faro and Revista Factum, have shed light on illicit networks within the special forces unit of El Salvador’s police that have committed alleged acts of extrajudicial executions, sexual assaults and extortion, among other crimes.
In early September, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a hearing on reports of extrajudicial executions in El Salvador. At these hearings, two well-respected non-governmental organizations — including the Institute for Human Rights at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (IDHUCA) and Servicio Social Pasionista (SSPAS) — criticized the Salvadoran government for tolerating extrajudicial executions. SSPAS highlighted that in 2016 alone, according to official documents, the ratio of presumed gang members killed in armed confrontations with police officers and military members killed was 59:1. Commissioner James Cavallaro of the IACHR observed that this statistic suggests “El Salvador is dealing with a pattern of extreme and excessive use of force by the police.” As of August of this year, officials cite, 293 alleged gang members and four police and military members have been killed in confrontations.
In response to the accusations, the government’s representative, Vice Minister of Justice and Security, Raul Lopez, denied that the security forces suffered from any systemic problems with extrajudicial killings, and asserted that cases, where police abuse occurred, were being properly investigated. A few days later Lopez went further, denying that extrajudicial killings had taken place in El Salvador.
El Salvador faces long-standing problems of crime and violence. While the government has been sluggish in its response to accusations of police abuse, it has continued to display a preference for an “iron fist” strategy to combat gang violence. Last month, during which 200 people were killed in one week, the government doubled down on its security approach, announcing that it would increase military and police operations in public spaces. Multiple governments have struggled to control the problem of gang violence. With weak police and justice systems, little commitment to violence-prevention programs and social services in poor communities, authorities have relied on hardline anti-gang policies, which have been ineffective in lowering violence rates or increasing community security. Since 2013, the resulting insecurity has forced many young people to migrate, led to the displacement of some communities and hurt the economy.
The current government announced the creation of a comprehensive anti-violence plan called El Salvador Seguro in 2015. In practice, the roll-out of the plan by the Sánchez Cerén government has focused mostly on repressive policing and the deployment of army troops to support the police. The last eighteen months have seen a spiral of violence during the government’s declared “war on gangs,” as gangs targeted police and soldiers in attacks.
There is no question that gang-related violence is high in El Salvador, and that gang members are explicitly targeting police officers and soldiers. Members of the security forces are doing a dangerous job — they are confronting a difficult problem on behalf of society, and putting themselves and their families at risk. No one should minimize the pressure under which the police operates. However, that doesn’t give police license to act outside the bounds of the law, or with impunity. If the police can’t treat suspected criminals with due process, this undermines their own ability to gain the trust of the community to do their jobs effectively. It also undermines the integrity of the National Civilian Police as an institution, created by the Peace Accords, and intended to be professional and rights-respecting, in contrast to the abusive security forces that operated during El Salvador’s civil war.
In order to control police abuse, there are multiple steps that the Salvadoran government can take. First and foremost, the Minister of Public Security and the police leadership need to clearly and consistently reject extrajudicial executions, and investigate, sanction, and refer for criminal prosecution any police officers involved in such activity.
It is important that the Attorney General’s Office continues to conduct thorough investigations of reported extrajudicial executions and prosecutes these crimes to the fullest extent. The Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos) should actively pursue complaints, as it did in a number of cases in recent years.The Salvadoran legislature and executive office must also publicly and privately demonstrate its unconditional backing of the work of the Attorney General and continue to allocate proper funding to support its work. Additionally, the Salvadoran police should act to strengthen its internal affairs office to review any reported misconduct by officers and seek to establish a civilian oversight structure that reviews the work of the internal affairs unit and provides recommendations for improving community policing.
Ending the violence that plagues El Salvador is a long-term process that will require investment in prevention and in rehabilitation efforts to strengthen both police and justice institutions, and larger social processes. It’s vital to ensure that the police force, as it carries out its part of that larger process, upholds due process and the rule of law, even in confrontations with gang members.
Below are brief descriptions of a few cases reported by Revista Factum, El Faro and by Salvadoran human rights groups, IDHUCA and SSPAS in which alleged extrajudicial killings and police abuses were committed: