WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Mar 2011 | Commentary | News

Stronger than the Iron Fist: Funes Administration Attempts a Different Approach to Crime and Violence in El Salvador

[This piece expands on WOLA’s previously released Media Background: Key Issues and Analysis of President Obama’s Upcoming Visit to El Salvador] 

When President Obama visits El Salvador on March 22 and 23rd, he will find a country that is trying new approaches to tackling some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.  The Funes Adminstration has opted to take steps away from the harsh, iron-fist tactics of his predecessors and has started to emphasize more comprehensive, community-based approaches to tackling crime and greater attention to the professionalization of the country’s law enforcement institutions. While much remains to be done and results will not be immediate, this is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, these initial efforts will translate into robust commitments aimed at confronting the causes of crime in a comprehensive and sustainable way and a firm abandonment of ineffective, get-tough measures, including inviting the military into streets.  The international community, for its part, should encourage greater coordination and support.

El Salvador is experiencing epidemic levels of violence and has one of the highest murder rates in the world, 65 per 100,000 in 2010, nearly ten times the U.S. average.

Unlike the violence during the years of civil war, the violence currently plaguing the country cannot be attributed to one clear cause.  Economic insecurity and high levels of inequality have produced serious social tensions that have given rise to various forms of criminality, including common crime, intra-family violence, and youth violence. Street crime – muggings and petty extortion – is widespread, and victimization surveys suggest that it is the kind of crime most widely experienced by Salvadoran citizens.

Organized crime is a growing problem in El Salvador and a rising source of violence. There are long-standing forms of organized crime – contraband smuggling, arms trafficking, auto theft, kidnapping – often committed by groups that mutated out of the death squad structures that operated during El Salvador’s civil war.  The problem has been further exacerbated by the growing presence of drug cartels looking to set up operations for the transshipments of illicit drugs and money heading north. A map of homicides done by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows heavy concentrations of killings in the ports and along the border regions, suggesting that conflict among drug traffickers is a major source of crime.[1] Organized crime groups – whether drug traffickers or others – often have high-level contacts with corrupt officials from the police and other state agencies to protect their illicit activities.

Gang-related crimes – turf battles between rival gangs or crimes associated with street drug sales, extortions, kidnappings or killings-for-hire committed by gang members – are another major source of crime.  Due to poor sources of intelligence and the constantly morphing structures of gangs, figures about gang membership in El Salvador are notoriously unreliable, as are estimates about what percentage of crimes are committed by gangs.  Although El Salvador’s Defense Minister recently said that 90% of homicides are committed by gang members, the director of the National Civilian Police estimated – more reasonably– that gang members commit some 40% to 45% of homicides.

Failed Anti-Crime Strategies

Beginning in 2003, the Salvadoran government focused on gang crimes as the major source of crime.  Former presidents Francisco Flores and Tony Saca pursued “mano dura” and “super mano dura” strategies – passing legislation that made it a crime to be a member of a gang, reducing the standards of proof for gang membership, and directing the police to conduct large-scale sweeps to arrest gang members. From July 2003 through August 2004 alone, the Salvadoran police arrested and charged 19,275 youth with the crime of “illicit association”. Prison populations grew, and the percentage of the inmates jailed for gang-related crimes almost doubled between 2002 and 2005.

It didn’t take long to see this single-minded focus on iron-fist tactics to combat gangs was counter productive.  The arbitrary detention of thousands of people who were later freed for a lack of evidence against them failed to reduce crime levels.  Homicides increased every single year from 39 per 100,000 in 2003 to 72 per 100,000 in 2009, despite the zero-tolerance strategy.  Gangs themselves were transformed; moving from neighborhood-based gangs to more regionally and nationally linked groups, and from social groups that engaged in criminal activity to more organized structures whose inner circles carried out economically-motivated crimes.  Imprisonment served to bring members together, and enable them to organize more effectively and clandestinely.

Moreover, these anti-gang policies had a devastating impact on the police force, contributing to frequent abuses and to a climate of tolerance toward extrajudicial activities by members of the police.

Steps Toward A New Approach

Faced with the failure of the mano dura policies, Funes and his security team have opted to focus greater attention on a more comprehensive approach to the problems of crime and violence. Recognizing that violence prevention is a key element in dealing with youth crime, the government has focused efforts on community based initiatives, by establishing violence prevention commissions in twelve municipalities. The government also began to work more closely with NGOs and community organizations.

In addition, the government has recognized that there are in fact multiple sources of crime, and that singular focuses on youth violence or drug trafficking are not adequate. Both state intelligence units and police intelligence units were strengthened to enable them to carry out more informed assessments of the major forms of crime and violence. In addition, plans have been developed to restructure the police, including shifts in leadership, and a new focus on both the patrol division and the investigative units. Equally important, the Police Chief, with the support of the President, has given new life to the police Inspector General’s office which is in charge of internal affairs and focuses heavily on rooting out corruption from the police forces. The head of the PNC named a young dynamic attorney with a human rights background Zaira Navas, to head the unit. Navas, though hindered by opposition inside the police and in the National Assembly, has brought charges against more than a hundred police officials, including several senior commanders and a previous police commissioner.

The government has also recognized that it needs to re-assert control over the prisons, which suffer from overcrowding and inhumane conditions, and from which many crimes are organized and directed. Steps have been taken to set up signal blocking equipment to prevent prisoners from making calls on cell phones to organize illicit business.

This comprehensive approach to the issue of insecurity has already borne fruit and homicides were down for the first time in years, dropping by about 9% in 2010, and extortions decreased as well.  These are important gains, but certainly still small ones – a homicide rate of 11 deaths a day is better than a rate of 13, but still unacceptably high.

In addition, the Salvadoran government has recognized that it needs to do more to tackle highly organized crime. When neighboring Guatemala, found itself faced similar with weaknesses in the police and Attorney General’s office in the investigation of crimes committed by clandestine criminal organizations with links to the state, it petitioned the United Nations to help it establish an international commission to investigate and prosecute these crimes. El Salvador is now reportedly considering a similar approach. Both President Funes and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela have talked about exploring this mechanism in El Salvador.

Problematic Military Reinforcement

Unfortunately, like many of its neighbors, Funes turned to the military to try help the police get a grip on El Salvador’s intractable crime. In November 2009 and in response to the rising levels of violence and public demand for action, Funes authorized a six-month army deployment to the 19 most crime-ridden communities. While the participation of the army in public security functions is not a new phenomenon in El Salvador, this time, the military was granted broader powers, allowing it to carry out searches, arrest people and set up checkpoints.

In May 2010, the army’s mandate was extended for another year. Its deployment was expanded from 19 to 29 zones. In addition, soldiers were posted in 62 previously unguarded border areas and some 1,500 soldiers were sent to the prisons to guard the perimeters and search personnel and visitors.

The military’s presence on the streets may satisfy public demands for action but relying on the military is highly problematic. Inviting the military to take on public security functions not only violates the spirit of the 1992 Peace Accords but also negatively affects the image of the police and detracts attention from the urgent need to strengthen the police and criminal justice institutions. It blurs the line between the structures and functions of the police and military, undermining the important separation of powers. Involving the military can also fuel corruption and abuses among the army.

The Role of the International Community

El Salvador’s crime and violence problems are extremely serious. Recognizing the great needs of El Salvador and other Central American countries, the United States has provided nearly $250 million dollars in security assistance to Central America thorough the Central American Regional Security Initiative or CARSI (previously the Central American component of the Merida Initiative), of which El Salvador is one of the main beneficiaries.

The U.S. is not alone. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank and WOLA suggests that along with the U.S., a number of international donors (the Spanish, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others) have pledged significant sums of money to support anti-crime and prevention efforts in El Salvador and the other Central American countries over the past few years. Yet, as the study also shows, there is very little coordination of the efforts among the various donors or between donors and the governments.

Despite significant investments in addressing the citizen security challenges, the situation has deteriorated region wide. In some cases, donors fund programs that duplicate the same effort, or in worse cases support conflicting goals. The lack of more integrated, comprehensive and long-term national plans makes it difficult for donors to meaningfully target their commitments. At the same time, the lack of effective donor coordination often makes it hard for governments to create long-term plans.

Successfully addressing the citizen security challenges afflicting El Salvador, and the region, require comprehensive, long-term strategies that emphasize violence prevention and institutional strengthening of the police, judiciary and other law enforcement institutions, and policies aimed at addressing the root causes of violence. In order to achieve this, attention must be given to improving coordination, planning and support among all relevant stakeholders – governments, donors and civil society.

Over the past several years, WOLA and its Central American partners have been promoting the idea of establishing a long-term mechanism of consultation and coordination aimed at improving planning, collaboration and support among governments, donors and key civil society stakeholders. A mechanism of this kind provides an opportunity to bring together all the relevant actors while also opening a space to discuss how to address the problems of insecurity comprehensively. Tackling the deteriorating security conditions will require not only coordination about the shared regional challenges, but at the national level as well. Governments in Central America face serious internal security issues. The success of any regional efforts will depend on how well governments can respond to the national challenges Making efforts of governments like El Salvador worth a close look.


[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire, May 2007.