WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Dec 2016 | Commentary

Inside Central America’s New Anti-Gang Joint Task Force

AP Photo/Alex Peña

On November 15, 2016, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras launched a new, joint task force. The Tri-National Anti-Gang Task Force will operate along the nearly 400 miles of border territory that divides the three countries, carrying out coordinated operations targeting gang activity, drug trafficking and human smuggling, and streamlining intelligence sharing.

At the inaugural ceremony in western Honduras, near where the countries meet, President Juan Orlando Hernández said the force’s intention is to “combat more than 70,000 gang members” present in the Northern Triangle region (made up of the three participating countries) and “give them a taste of their own medicine.” Accompanied by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Ceren, he explained, “What we are installing is the perfecting of shields along our borders.”

Presidents Hernández and Sánchez Ceren announced the launch on Twitter:

joh_ssc_tweets

Although the three governments agreed to establish the task force in August, there is still little public information about it, leaving many pending questions.

Here’s what we know about this new force:

It appears that it will have between 1,500 and 2,500 members, although no official numbers have been released.

According to the Salvadoran military, the country will contribute 700 soldiers. Salvadoran National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto said that the force could deploy 500, 1,000 or up to 1,500 police officers depending on the type of operation. Guatemala is putting in 200 police and 100 military members according to an August news report, and Honduras will be adding 300 members to the border with Guatemala and 250 to the border with El Salvador, although the breakdown between military and police is unclear. There will also be an undisclosed amount of customs, migration, and intelligence officials from each of the three countries.

It will only operate along the borders and will focus on gangs, border security, intelligence sharing, and trafficking of arms, drugs, humans and vehicles.

There will reportedly be sub-working groups in each of these areas, two more in intelligence and border security, and a centralized arrest warrant system. It is unclear what the size of each of these working groups is, or the priority given to each issue.

It was already in operation prior to the announcement.

Authorities announced that the force captured six Salvadoran gang members in Guatemala on October 12.

It’s called the Tri-National Task Force, but may be made up of smaller border forces.

Over the past few years, countries in the region, at times with U.S. support, have stood up separate border security task forces. This includes bodies like the Tecún-Umán Interagency Task Force, comprised of military and police personnel operating on the Mexico-Guatemala border. In 2015, the Rand Corporation published a federally-funded evaluation critical of the task force, highlighting several shortcomings. The United States has contributed over US$23 million to the force.

In March 2015, the Maya-Chorti Interagency Task Force was stood up along the Honduran-Guatemalan border. Each country reportedly provides 200 police and 190 soldiers to the force as well as customs and immigration officials. The United States pledged at least US$13.4 million to help set it up.

According to news reports, two more border task forces will be operating along Central American borders: the Maya-Pipil Task Force along the Guatemala-El Salvador border and the Lenca-Sumpul Task Force along El Salvador’s border with Honduras. There is conflicting information between news reports and government agencies about whether these forces will make up or be part of the new tri-national task force, or whether they will be separate task forces operating in coordination with it.

From the Salvadoran military’s side, the troops will be pulled from the Sumpul Command, one of several elite units engaged in domestic operations targeting gangs.

However, many aspects of the force remain unknown. Here’s what we need to be asking:

How will they deal with migrants at the borders? What will training look like?

While the main purpose of this body is to combat gangs and organized crime, these units will inevitably encounter migrants, especially families and unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing violence. What will happen when they encounter these migrants? Will the task force prevent them from leaving and send them back to the communities from which they fled, in many cases hoping to escape targeted death threats?

In 2014, an elite Honduran unit was revealed to be doing just this in a U.S.-backed program known as “Operation Rescue Angels.”

How will this force interact with forces already monitoring borders?

As mentioned above, there is already a separate border force on the Guatemalan-Honduran border: the Maya-Chorti Interagency Task Force. Two others are being stood up along El Salvador’s borders with both countries. Are these forces part of the new force? Government and news reports are not clear.

Beyond this, there are many other border initiatives, some supported by the United States, active on all borders—some that involve just police, some involving military and police, and some just military. How will this force work with existing border security bodies?

In 2011 these governments created a joint, transnational task force targeting Mexican criminal groups. How will this be different than previous joint forces and operations?

Participating troops also need to be careful about their actions in other countries’ territories.

How will this force be connected to the justice systems in each country?

While members of this new task force will reportedly share intelligence with one another, how will they interact with the justice system in each of the countries? How will the justice systems in each of the countries interact with one another? How does this look different than information-sharing systems or coordination efforts between the three countries that are currently in place?  Will the creation of the new force be accompanied by efforts to strengthen and improve criminal justice systems in each country?

The answers to questions like these will be key to the new units’ effectiveness. Organized crime and illicit networks are real problems that warrant cross-border investigations and convictions, but the criminal justice systems in all three countries are currently inadequate to combat organized crime and gang violence.

How will they handle alleged gang members and criminals?

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s warning that this force was going to “give criminals a taste of their own medicine” carries an ominous weight.

In El Salvador, security forces were given what amounts to a green light to use lethal force against alleged gang members. This has resulted in extremely high death tolls for those alleged to be in a gang, mostly adolescent boys from poor neighborhoods, and increasing concerns about abuses and extrajudicial killings at the hands of security forces. Between January and June of 2016, 346 alleged gang members had been killed, compared to 16 police officers, during violent confrontations. Several media covering this new force have reported that, in addition to the high number of people fleeing the country’s violence, gang members are fleeing El Salvador and setting up structures in the neighboring countries.

Given the high number of alleged gang members killed by Salvadoran security forces and given the relative impunity for crimes carried out by security forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it is important this multinational force draw a clear line on how alleged gang members will be handled. Observers must stay vigilant to ensure that this line is not crossed.

Other related questions to ask are related to the unit’s mandate: are members looking for specific fugitives? Or just anyone who looks like they are part of a gang?

Which units from each military and police force are going to participate in the force? How will the military be used versus the police?

The breakdown between military and police in task forces matters, and changes the nature of operations. How the force is structured makes the difference between the military providing surrounding security for an operation, or soldiers carrying out most aspects of an operation or developing the strategy behind it. Who is in charge calling the shots? Ultimately, a law enforcement issue should be handled by civilian police and the criminal justice system.

While it appears that Guatemala is providing double the number of police as military personnel, it is unclear what the police-to-military ratio is for Honduras’ 550 members, or how many police officers El Salvador is deploying alongside the 700 soldiers.

Beyond their fundamental difference in roles, both the military and police in all three countries face accusations of serious human rights violations. In Honduras, there have been multiple allegations that elements of the military have hit lists targeting human rights defenders and environmental activists, while an entire force of military police was created because the National Civilian Police were deemed too corrupt to carry out their role. A clean-up of the Honduran Civilian Police is progressing. In El Salvador, the Attorney General has taken some steps to investigate members of the police and military for unlawful killings, but much more needs to happen to respond to police and military abuses. There is no ongoing police reform effort there. Transparency about which units are participating in this new task force is crucial for human rights protection and holding the proper people to account for abuse reports.

What’s the budget and how is this being paid for?

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have extremely limited budgets. Investments into one security initiative mean fewer investments made into other initiatives. Are other governments investing in the force? Is it being paid for through a security tax or some other mechanism? For instance, sections of Honduras’ security budget are classified, and through these, its military police are paid, in part through a security tax. As with participating units, transparency and accountability over the funding flows matter when measuring effectiveness.

The role of the United States

There is an implicit assumption in news reports that the United States is financially supporting the force—explaining that it’s part of the “Alliance for Prosperity” plan that all three countries signed and which the US$750 million aid package for the region supports.

However, the U.S. government has not weighed in on the force publicly—nothing was posted to the U.S. Embassy webpages in any of the three countries, there is no release from the State Department, none of the ambassadors’ Twitter accounts mention the force, nor do any of the U.S. military agency websites involved in the region. It is unknown if the aid package funds will be specifically directed towards this force.

While it is unclear whether or not the United States supports the force at this time, it is even less clear what future support from the United States would look like under a Trump administration. It would not be out of step with the President-Elect’s campaign platform to support the force, but until he makes further cabinet appointments it will be impossible to know.

The countries are also reportedly reaching out to Mexico and Colombia to support the initiative.