This article is the third in a series looking at the need for police reform in the hemisphere. WOLA advocates for civilian police forces that both advance citizen security and protect human rights, and for efforts that dignify the men and women who serve.
Dennis Alexander Martínez Hernández was just 20 years old when he was killed by members of a specialized unit of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil, PNC) in March 2015. An employee of the San Blas coffee farm about 20 miles outside of San Salvador, he was one of eight individuals, including a 16-year-old girl, killed in what the PNC claimed was a confrontation between police and armed criminals.
An investigative report published in July 2015 by Salvadoran news outlet El Faro raised questions about what happened at San Blas. Then, in April 2016 David Morales, until recently the head of El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, PDDH), presented the results of a nine-month investigation into the San Blas case. The PDDH concluded that Martínez and Sonia Esmeralda Guerrero, the 16-year old, were victims of extrajudicial executions at the hands of the police, and that there was sufficient evidence to presume that the other six were also summarily executed during the operation. In its report, the PDDH noted that the crime scene had been tampered with and pointed to the possibility of a cover up by police higher-ups. The Ombudsman also denounced a lack of cooperation with its investigation from security and justice officials.
This July, four months after the PDDH report and one year after the El Faro story, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez accused nine members of the Police Reaction Group (Grupo de Reacción Policial, GRP) in connection with the San Blas killings. The Attorney General’s case is limited in that it only pertains to the killing of Martínez and does not address other violations, including the execution of Guerrero and deaths of the other six, the tampering of evidence, and other inconsistencies. Nonetheless, it is an important step forward in tackling police wrongdoing in El Salvador, which has too often been met with indifference.
The arrests came a week after the Inspector General for Public Security claimed that the officers had not acted outside of the law. Following the arrests, government officials expressed support for the PNC. “We are supporting (the police) and will continue to support them, because it is the structure in the first trench of combat and confrontation,” said Vice President Óscar Ortiz in response to the arrests. Minister of Justice and Security Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde insisted upon the PNC version of the incident, maintaining that the police officers were “acting under orders” and were “fulfilling their duty.”
The San Blas case is not the only example of a growing and deeply troubling pattern of police abuse and social cleansing in El Salvador. According to Morales, the PDDH has identified a “pattern of violence” that includes assassinations by death squads and extralegal executions at the hands of members of security forces. The PDDH is currently investigating 161 homicides attributed to death squads and 119 possible extrajudicial executions at the hands of members of the security forces between 2013 and 2016, as well as 4 cases of possible forced disappearances perpetrated by security forces. So far this year, eleven members of the police have been arrested for supposed ties to death squads or gang hitmen, including the July arrests of five police officers and five civilians for their alleged involvement with a death squad linked to the killings of forty supposed gang members.
With over 6,600 registered homicides, El Salvador became the most violent country in the world in 2015. There’s no doubt that criminal gangs in El Salvador perpetuate a significant portion of this violence, as can be seen in the dramatic drop in homicides from April 2012 to June 2013, during a truce between rival gangs. In marginalized communities under gang control, almost no one escapes unaffected by the violence; however, it is most acutely experienced by young men. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world among children and adolescents with 27 murders per 100,000; for children and adolescent boys, the homicide rate was over 40—again, the highest in the world.
In January 2015, the Salvadoran government announced its program “Secure El Salvador” (El Salvador Seguro) an ambitious five-year, $2.1 billion comprehensive security strategy that prioritizes violence prevention, rehabilitation, and education and training programs for the country’s most violent areas, as well as strengthening the rule of law. The plan is a good one. In practice, however, it appears that Salvadoran authorities are prioritizing a hardline, repressive security approach, creating anti-gang battalions such as the Special Reaction Forces (Fuerzas Especiales de Reacción, FER) and deploying a new heavily armed military force to rural areas to fight the gangs.
The measures have resulted in a growing number of clashes between presumed gang members and security forces. According to PNC Director Howard Cotto, 318 gang members have been killed so far this year and 152 detained in 316 confrontations with police. A June news report set the number at 346 gang members killed, noting that confrontations have increased since the deployment of the Special Reaction Forces this past March. (While official numbers are unavailable, one news report suggested that 17 police officers had been killed from January to June of this year, a stark contrast that makes clear that police have the upper hand in most of these confrontations.)
It is yet to be seen if the government’s iron fist strategy can actually reduce gang-related killings. As of August 2016, the PNC has registered a total of 3,542 homicides. Although this is only seven less than the same time last year, the government has noted that, for the first time since the end of the controversial gang truce, the homicide rate has stopped rising, a change that Vice President Ortíz attributed to the government’s security strategy and “extraordinary measures” against the gangs.
While the impact on crime is not clear, there are severe consequences to the security crackdown in the increasing reports of human rights abuses and extrajudicial executions, raising concerns about the security forces’ “shoot first, ask questions later” policy and the lack of action on the part of the Salvadoran government to rein in police abuse.
There is no doubt that El Salvador is experiencing a grave security crisis, with levels of violence not seen since the time of the civil war. The police are often under heavy pressure to respond, and police officers are putting themselves at risk. And there is little sympathy in the public at large for presumed gang members dying at the hands of police. But throughout the hemisphere, from Brazil to the United States to El Salvador, experience has demonstrated the dire consequences of turning a blind eye to widespread police abuse and wrongdoing.
There are steps that the Salvadoran government can and should take to respond to police abuse, even as it responds to gang violence. According to Morales, the reemergence of death squads and perpetuation of human rights abuses at the hands of security officials in El Salvador is fueled by a lack of internal controls and weak security and justice institutions that allow for abuses to be tolerated and remain in impunity. Police officials and the Attorney General’s Office must thoroughly investigate the cases of extrajudicial executions that have been brought to light in recent months. In addition, it is crucial that the PDDH, under its new leadership, continue its independent investigations and reporting.
Beyond investigation, preventing other incidents of police abuse from happening requires a deep commitment to institutional strengthening and reform, and to improving community relations, as well as a commitment to establishing effective accountability mechanisms to ensure that police officers are performing their difficult jobs in compliance with the law and with respect for human rights.