WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
26 Sep 2014 | Commentary | News

Migration and Citizen Security in El Salvador

The newly installed Sanchez Cerén administration offers a promising approach

If the U.S. has felt little need to pay attention to Central America and its problems up until now, at the same time the region’s administrations have shown little capacity to develop thoughtful approaches themselves. On development, local elites and their international partners have mostly pursued short-term and self-interested economic programs; taxes have remained low, public services and social welfare programs have been modest at best, and development programs have not spawned job creation or equitable growth. On crime and insecurity, where the region faces some of the world’s highest homicide rates and multiple sources of violence, including street gangs, drug trafficking, and the corrupting influences of organized crime, governments have fallen back on the popular but ineffective strategies of “mano dura” (iron-fisted) policing, and of deploying the military to patrol the streets and highways. Of course, if administrations and leaders in Central America can be faulted for their lack of vision and pursuit of short-sighted and conservative policies, U.S. policy, to the extent it has paid attention to the region, has often promoted and reinforced these approaches.

Now, as the U.S. begins to consider supporting the region in addressing the problems that are among the drivers of irregular migration, one of the questions that must be asked is whether the region’s governments, elites, and civil societies have serious proposals to address the lack of opportunity and citizen insecurity, and whether the U.S. will support such proposals.

In this context, the newly installed Salvadoran administration offers some promising possibilities.

Citizen Security Strategies in El Salvador

In early September, the University Public Opinion Research Institute (El Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública, IUDOP) at the Jesuit University of Central America (Universidad Centroamericana, UCA) in El Salvador presented a study—two years in the making— of the situation of crime and insecurity in El Salvador. The study provides important data on topics such as the sources of crime (gangs are responsible for about 30 percent of the homicides that are solved, rather than the 90 percent that has sometimes been claimed), the functioning of the Attorney General’s office (less than 5 percent of the criminal complaints that are filed end with a conviction or an acquittal), and the functioning of the prison system (more overcrowded than any other prison system in Latin America, the system has experimented with alternatives to incarceration and tried to reduce corruption among prison officials and guards).

But most interesting was the study’s critique of how public security policy was handled over the course of the last five years, under the government of left-of-center President Mauricio Funes. Initially, the administration, installed in 2009, turned away from the “mano dura” policies of its predecessors on the political right, and focused on institutional changes to make the police a more honest and effective force that would both capture criminals and deter crime. New leadership was named, the investigative unit was reorganized, and an anti-corruption campaign was launched. But a backlash from hardliners and only modest drops in the homicide rate led the President to radically shift strategies. He moved the Minister of Defense over to the Public Security Ministry, and military or military-linked officials were soon named to key posts in police investigation, police intelligence, and at the head of the police. The anti-corruption campaign stalled, and officials who had been under suspicion were soon rehabilitated. The number of army troops assigned to patrol the streets soared. And individuals linked to the government brokered a pact between the country’s two main street gangs that prohibited killings of rival gang members, while gangs continued to engage in extortion and other criminal activity.

The UCA’s critique focuses on the administration’s shift away from institutional reform and its turn toward military involvement in policing. The report ends by calling on the new administration, which took office in June, to renew the focus on police reform, strengthen the commitment to a civilian-run police force, and invest more in community-based violence prevention efforts.

The report was presented at a public forum at the UCA. The lead author, Jeannette Aguilar, and the Rector of the University, Fr. Andreu Oliva, both spoke. WOLA had written a prologue to the report, as had Rep. James P. McGovern [D-MA], and I attended and spoke as well. Following the forum, I did a number of interviews with Salvadoran government officials, political analysts, civil society activists, and representatives of a number of donor agencies. I wanted to know their reaction to the report and their assessment of the Salvadoran government’s public security strategy. I came away modestly optimistic.


The government has only been in office three months, but the initial signs are encouraging. The new Minister of Justice and Public Security, Benito Lara, has affirmed his administration’s commitment to the public security strategy that guided the first two years of the Funes administration, with its focus on combatting corruption in the police, strengthening the police as an institution, improving and decentralizing police investigation, improving the quality of police intelligence, and pursuing a dual strategy of combating organized crime and strengthening community policing. He has named widely-respected police officers to leadership posts and has repeatedly stated his commitment to the belief that policing is a civilian function, in which the military should play no leadership role. (The President’s security cabinet does not include the Minister of Defense, in contrast to the previous government.) The Minister also discussed a crime and violence prevention strategy that concentrates on specific municipalities and on municipal-level approaches, with a role for local governments, community organizations, local police, and others. Many experts and a number of the donor agencies that work on crime and violence prevention consider integrated municipal approaches to be the smart approach to crime prevention.

Finally, the administration appears to be seeking broad political support for its strategy—it is convening a National Commission on Public Security (whose members will be announced this week) that is expected to include religious, business, and political leaders to review and support coherent anti-crime strategies. It has advisors from governments in Spain, Colombia, and Brazil, and from the UN Development Programme, and some support from the government of Japan, USAID, and others, for elements of its police reform and community policing efforts.

Of course, there’s no magic bullet that will reduce crime and violence in El Salvador, or anywhere in the region, overnight. Administrations will continue to face substantial pressures from the public, as well as from political opponents, to revert to hardline policies. And governments, even with the best of will, may lack the capacity or the resources to effectively implement coherent and progressive approaches.

All that said, it looks like the government of El Salvador is making a serious effort to develop and implement a citizen security strategy that is coherent, civilian-led, committed to a community-oriented approach, concerned about preventing police abuse and corruption, and includes elements of both violence prevention and institutional strengthening. That’s probably more than can be said about the governments of Honduras and Guatemala at this point.

Last week the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries presented a broad development plan for the region, the Alliance for Prosperity (WOLA has commented on the plan here). While there are many questions about the plan, to the extent that the United States wants to work with Central American governments that have well-developed and coherent plans to reduce the crime and insecurity that help drive irregular migration, it should explore how to provide technical assistance, political support, and aid that can help the Salvadoran government successfully implement the approach it is outlining.