WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Apr 2012 | Commentary | News

Public Security Challenges in El Salvador Today

In remarks at a recent forum on El Salvador sponsored by WOLA and the Moakley Institute at Suffolk University, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) spoke about the public security crisis in El Salvador today and what needs to be done to address the country’s institutional challenges.

WOLA has followed public security issues in El Salvador since the 1992 Peace Accords brought an end to explicit political violence and armed conflict. Over the years, crime and crime-related violence have been major challenges for the country. Though some reforms were implemented in the judicial system and a new civilian police force was created, public security bodies still have serious institutional weakness. Homicide rates, which were high in the late 1990s, have doubled since then and now stand at 70 per 100,000, while victimization surveys show that extortion, street crime, and domestic violence are major problems.

The crime rate is the result of a variety of factors. Long-standing inequality, rapid urbanization, and changing social and family structures are structural contributors. Both youth gang violence (often involving disputes over territory and small-scale extortion) and organized criminal groups (often linked to paramilitary structures that emerged during the war years) are important elements. The failure of the criminal justice system to deter crime as a result of its inability to successfully investigate and prosecute most crimes is also a factor. In recent years, the explosive growth of drug trafficking in Central America due to shifting supply routes has contributed to both crime and the corruption that undermines the rule of law.

For many years, the main focus of the Salvadoran government’s response to crime and violence was a mano dura (zero tolerance) strategy, which saw the principal problem as youth gangs and the appropriate response as a police strategy directed at taking gang members off the streets.

Current Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes began his term in 2009 with a new approach. Rather than focusing almost exclusively on youth gangs, his government saw the problem as multi-faceted. The Funes administration’s comprehensive strategy emphasized crime prevention programs focused on youth and on high crime municipalities; the institutional strengthening of the police, including anti-corruption measures and efforts to strengthen the criminal investigation division; and prison reform programs, including re-asserting state control over the prison system, improving prison conditions, and beginning rehabilitation and training programs for prisoners.

Some elements of this strategy have been implemented more effectively than others, and their short-term impact on crime has been mixed: while homicide rates dropped by about 10% in the first full year of the Funes administration, they crept back up in the second year. Overall, specialists generally agree that Funes has pursued the right approach to addressing the problems of crime and violence.[i] WOLA’s research and policy recommendations, as well as the work of our partners and colleagues in the region, have supported such an approach.

But this comprehensive strategy can be very difficult to pursue politically. Because its gains tend to come over time rather than resulting in short-term reductions in crime rates, political leaders and public security officials are often tempted to revert to more hardline approaches. There are signs that the Funes Administration may be feeling this kind of pressure.[ii]

On April 9, 2012, WOLA and the Moakley Institute at Suffolk University in Boston sponsored a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities in El Salvador today, twenty years after the Peace Accords were signed. WOLA Program Director Geoff Thale moderated for the speakers, Salvadoran Ambassador Francisco Altschul and Representative James P. McGovern (D-MA). Rep. McGovern, who has followed El Salvador for many years both as a Member of Congress and as a staffer for the late Rep. Joe Moakley, spoke about the challenges El Salvador faces today in the face of crime and insecurity. His hard-hitting remarks were front page news in El Salvador, and generated considerable controversy. [iii]

Please click here for the text of Rep. McGovern’s speech.

[i] See, for example, the World Bank’s report on crime and violence in Central America, the most recent report by the UNDP, and WOLA’s reports Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America and Daring to Care.

[ii] For more information, see WOLA’s statements in January 2012 and November 2011 on recent changes in the Salvadoran Ministry of Security and National Civilian Police.