El Salvador: What Makes Gang Members Defect?

By José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen*

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador./ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In El Salvador, gang members do not quit their gangs and stop their criminal behavior in a single, clear-cut event, but rather through a process of interaction with a viable alternative, particularly religious groups. The gangs exert control over their members through a combination of benefits – such as employment, an identity, and security – and coercion and fear of the consequences of disloyalty. The gangs exert overwhelming influence over the social environment and regulate members’ lives and peer relationships on the street and in the prisons, where government policies enable them to have near-total control of individuals. Escaping that control is a difficult and dangerous process.

  • Our research, including a 112-question survey of nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador and 24 in-depth interviews, shows that a number of factors fuel members’ desire to defect, but that exiting a gang first requires a cognitive shift that anticipates a life outside the group. The disengagement process starts with first doubts, including a critical assessment of one’s current actions, and is followed by “ anticipatory socialization” – an examination and gradual embrace of a new role. Specific experiences and activities help shape the new identity, and the process culminates in a post-exit validation.

Our surveys reveal that members grow more disillusioned with the gangs the longer they are in them. In interviews, they speak of traumatic events, such as armed threats against their families, as increasing their desire to leave – as well as their fear of the consequences of defection. Certain important life events can also influence gang members’ calculus but, according to our survey and interviews, are of secondary importance. Marriage, the reestablishment of significant relationships, parenthood, and employment are catalysts for reducing criminal behavior, but they are not themselves decisive. Age is also a factor, with adolescence being the period in which social embeddedness can be deepest, but longevity can weaken it.

  • Religious affiliation emerged as the single strongest predictor of members’ disengagement intentions. Our research confirmed that most active members who express the intention to defect are Evangelical Christians. Those individuals are two times more likely to consider leaving the gang than those without religious affiliation. Importantly, religious participation enables them to see others who have effectively and safely separated from gangs, making potential defectors three times more likely to harbor such intentions.
  • Evangelicalism seems to be the only kind of disengagement approved by the gangs. Indeed, a gang member who defected when he was 25 years old told us, “The only way that you can leave is through the Church.” Another said, “If you are a true Christian, [the gang leaders] do not harm you. But if you become a Christian just for the sake of leaving the gang, they order to kill you or beat you up.”

Life events that in other countries serve as “hooks for change” – incidents that prompt members to defect – do not appear to be as relevant in the initial stages of disengagement in El Salvador. Drivers that other studies show to be key, such as finding a job, establishing a stable relationship, or having a child, have less impact in El Salvador apparently because of the gangs’ pervasive influence in people’s daily lives – influence difficult to escape. These events do not necessarily occur outside the reach of the gangs, which often control the environment under which deserters have to survive. In addition, time in prison, which in many contexts increases members’ desire to quit, does not stimulate defections because the gangs’ near-total control over Salvadoran prisons makes defection there nearly impossible.

  • With Evangelical Pentecostalism providing the most viable – and the only gang-tolerated – way out, government and non-governmental organizations seeking to encourage defections may be tempted to promote the churches and fund their outreach to gang members. Our research suggests, however, that the crucial point might not only be the religious orientation of churches, but their ability to share the social spaces that the gang inhabits. To the extent that other NGOs can also access those spaces and being accepted by the community, they may give gang members some additional opportunities for disengagement – subject of our ongoing research.
  • Identity-based theory attributes the defectors’ actions to the emotional experience of guilt and conversion, but the differential associations – particularly meeting other successful defectors – provided by affiliation with the religious groups turn out to be significantly more important. Gang members yearn for the alternative social support systems that family, employment, and new neighbors – and government programs – cannot provide.

July 27, 2020

* José Miguel Cruz is Professor and Director of Research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, and Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University. Their full article is Mara Forever? Factors associated with gang disengagement in El Salvador.

El Salvador: Unwilling to Face Up to the Past

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA/ GuanacoSolido503/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The trial of Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, which began last week in Madrid, provides El Salvador a historic opportunity to learn from the past and reduce impunity in the future, but the government and elites appear unlikely to seize it. Montano is the only defendant in the trial for the murders of six Jesuit priests, five of them Spanish nationals, and two domestic staff on the campus of the Central American University in November 1989. The eight were killed by a Salvadoran Army unit trained by U.S. advisors in what was the last massacre of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) and the first great cover-up by the Salvadoran judicial system of the post-war period, starting with evidence-tampering and later other obstructionism by then-President Freddy Cristiani.

  • In the 31 years since, successive presidents, attorneys general, and supreme courts have failed to prosecute the Salvadoran military high command for ordering the murder of the Jesuits and their helpers. Not even the two FMLN presidents, who governed from 2009 to 2019, took judicial action despite promises to seek justice for them. President Mauricio Funes, the first of them, actually protected a group of former high-ranking military officers that a Spanish Justice alleges were masterminds of the massacre.
  • Despite the country’s political progress since the war, the failure to bring the perpetrators to account has bred a system in which even younger Salvadorans have been raised believing that it is best not to mess with the wounds of the past. People are afraid to condemn impunity, which remains one of the country’s most enduring and democracy-threatening challenges.

President Nayib Bukele, who was elected last year as an outsider committed to ending the corruption of both the FMLN and its conservative counterpart, ARENA (1989‑2009), appears reluctant to grasp the Madrid trial as a way to promote accountability and end impunity. He so far has not made a public statement about it and in recent months has increasingly relied on the corrupt and authoritarian institutions whose legacy is on trial. Some of the police officers, lawyers, and politicians that were part of the cover-up are still active in El Salvador. Some police officials who obstructed the Jesuit investigation are now high-ranking officers in the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) and, according to a variety of evidence, continue to promote a culture of impunity.

  • Bukele and his ARENA and FMLN counterparts in Congress are occupied in a never-ending confrontation over the COVID‑19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Moreover, the President’s security agenda, focused on crushing the gangs, has followed the path of his predecessors, giving the military enhanced powers and nudging the civilian police force back to its military roots. Bukele’s chief of police recently appeared in public wearing a military uniform, possibly violating laws passed in 1992 in fulfillment of the Peace Accords.

These political compromises and alliances and competing priorities seem likely to keep El Salvador from embracing the historic opportunity presented by the Madrid trial – not just to bring justice to the victims of the UCA massacre, but to address the entrenched culture of impunity that has marked Salvadoran politics and its justice system for decades.

  • The United States, the Organization of American States (OAS), and others advocating human rights and transparency also seem likely to miss the opportunity the trial gives them to promote their stated values. The views of political players in Washington today reflect the same schizophrenia visible in the 1980s – with Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing for investigations into the massacres while the Republican Administrations allied themselves with the government and military. (The George H.W. Bush Administration even acquiesced in the harassment of witnesses, including a U.S. military official, who offered important information about the Salvadoran Army’s role in the Jesuit murders.) During the Obama Administration, the State Department gave key support to the extradition of Montano to Spain. Washington risks, once again, overlooking its own responsibilities in these horrible crimes of the past and the damage done to Central America’s fragile democracies.

June 16, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

El Salvador: How Much has COVID-19 Hurt President Bukele?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License/ Official Photography from the Presidential House of El Salvador

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – Latin America’s most popular leader one year into his presidency– has raised concerns about his Administration because of his authoritarian approach to governing and managing the COVID‑19 pandemic. He won kudos for his strong and early effort to stem the spread of the virus, scoring a 95 percent favorable rating in a recent La Prensa Gráfica poll. But the resulting economic downturn – and his obvious frustration at the need to engage in political give-and-take as he tries to respond – are fragmenting his alliances and highlighting his Administration’s weaknesses.

  • The anti-COVID measures that Bukele instituted back in March were among the first and most bold in Central America, winning him strong domestic and international praise. He closed airports and public schools, enforced isolation-in-place, and ramped up government assistance to hospitals and vulnerable citizens. As remittances from abroad to families in El Salvador nose-dived, a sustainable aid program became even more important.

The crisis has brought to light some of the President’s weaknesses as a manager and leader, however, and how he has compensated with increasingly authoritarian measures, such as a move to augment spending without Congressional approval, that have alienated many. In social media, he has cyber-bullied opponents, and critics report an increase in harassment by government authorities over taxes, labor practices, and other regulatory issues. He has pushed away former political allies in the country’s two strongest parties – ARENA and the FMLN – and thereby reduced his mobilizational capacity in both San Salvador and the departments. The President had resorted to such tactics even before COVID‑19 – he directed heavily armed police and soldiers to occupy the National Legislature back in February during a confrontation over budget issues – but the pandemic has sparked an escalation.

  • As the scope of the pandemic has hit home since March, Bukele has taken actions that, although conceivably attracting popular support, have drawn strong pushback. The Supreme Court overruled his attempt two weeks ago to unilaterally extend emergency measures that would allow him to continue unchecked public spending to deal with the pandemic. The Attorney General is also investigating whether actions by the President and senior staff amounted to criminal behavior.
  • Public protests have begun in forms appropriate for the age of social distancing – cacerolazos, car honking, protest music, and other signs of anger. International human rights groups have also begun expressing concern about the implications of the government’s rough enforcement of pandemic measures. Bukele directed police to be harsh against and detain individuals perceived as violating quarantine, even as they ventured out in search of food for their families. Amnesty International and others have criticized “arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force,” and Human Rights Watch has criticized Bukele’s “flagrant disregard of the role of the Supreme Court” and called on the Organization of American States (OAS), which has remained silent, to “push Bukele to respect the rule of law.”

El Salvador is now nearing one hundred COVID cases per day, and the public health system is pushed to the limits. The economy, which has already ground to a halt, almost certainly is sustaining long-term damage that will prove increasingly costly politically for Bukele. While his personal popularity has held so far, his honeymoon with the economic and political sectors upon whom he depends to move forward ended months ago and – short of a drastic overhaul in his approach – he seems likely to continue facing a number of challenges. In his most recent move, he got into a fight with Congress when the legislative body rejected his request to postpone the state of the union address scheduled for June 1. His staff keeps struggling with ARENA and the FMLN in Congress to pass one last amendment that would allow him 15 more days of unchecked spending to deal with COVID‑19.

  • The pandemic has laid bare a number of social, economic, and institutional problems about which Bukele could push a broad national debate aimed at driving reforms. Popular distaste for the business elites as well as ARENA and the FMLN give him space for such a venture. But, at least as evidenced in recent months, his concerns about his personal power seem likely to preclude any such initiative.
  • U.S. support for Bukele has been crucial and shows no sign of abating in the immediate term. But growing human rights concerns beyond the Administration of President Donald Trump, including among Members of the U.S. Congress, if not addressed, will become a liability.

May 29, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

 

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

El Salvador: Draft Budget Confirms Structural Problems in Public Finance

By ICEFI and CLALS*

US banknote lot

U.S. Banknote Lot/ Creative Commons/ https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jqchd

The budget that President Nayib Bukele submitted to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in September increases much-needed social spending appropriate for the country’s current socio-economic context, but it lacks clear objectives and benchmarks — and fails to address ongoing structural problems in public finance.

  • The proposed budget is based on revenues of US$5.466 billion, 92.7 percent of which will come from taxes. In gross terms — without considering tax rebates — that amounts to a tax burden of 18.2 percent of GDP, just below the 18.3 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019. In net terms, the budget claims taxes will reach 18.1 percent of GDP (compared to 17.7 percent in 2019), but that figure is not realistic: it estimates tax refunds of only $16.5 million — compared to $117.4 million for the January-August period of this year. This error threatens to undermine serious Legislative debate.

Spending in the proposed 2020 budget reaches $5.774 billion — equal to 20.8 percent of GDP, compared to 22.3 percent estimated for 2019. Some areas that are already struggling, such as environmental programs, face significant cuts, while others will experience modest decreases and increases.

  • According to the draft, Central Government operating costs will decrease by 1.8 percent of GDP, driven by cuts in contracting of services and purchase of goods as well as in current transfers. Capital expenditures, on the other hand, will increase 0.3 percent over 2019 — that is, about 3.3 percent of GDP.
  • The Central Government’s spending on social development is slated to grow to its highest level in decades — about 10.5 percent of GDP ($2.921 billion), compared to 9.7 percent this year. The main beneficiaries of the increase will be municipal governments, pension systems, trusts for social security, and health care. With some 800,000 children and adolescents lacking schools to attend, the proposed increase in the education budget — from 3.73 percent (in 2019) to 3.75 percent — is minimal.

The budget anticipates a slight increase in the federal deficit. The non-financial public sector, including trusts to cover social security obligations, will experience a deficit of 3.1 percent of GDP (compared to the 2.7 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019) — pushing total public debt to 70 percent of GDP. That’s less than the 70.7 percent estimated for 2019, but ICEFI cautions that the decline could easily evaporate as the government faces growing demands over the course of the year. Either way, debt servicing will remain the most significant item in the 2020 budget, reaching $1.102 billion (4 percent of GDP).

The perennial challenge that El Salvador’s leaders like their counterparts throughout the region  face is how to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequalities to make the state more democratic and effective. But this budget, if implemented as drafted, will achieve neither goal in politically significant ways. The fiscal data underscore that the fundamental structural problems low revenues, inadequate public spending, and high fiscal deficits and public debt remain unaddressed.

  • The increase in capital spending, while positive, is insufficient to have its desired impact of driving economic growth. ICEFI’s analysis indicates that the jump in social spending is certainly warranted by the growing unhappiness in various social sectors, but also falls far short of what’s needed to reverse ongoing negative trends. The cuts in environmental protection from a minuscule 0.07 percent of GDP (2019) to 0.05 percent seem outright foolish for a country that has already shown vulnerabilities, which could aggravate existing economic and social conditions. Rather than taking on the serious challenges El Salvador and its economy face, the 2020 draft budget kicks the can down the road, without credible expectation that the task will be easier in the future.

December 9, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the third in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Latin America: Freelance Journalists are Essential but Vulnerable

By Bill Gentile*

Bill on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the northern mountains of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Gentile on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the 1980s/ Backpack journalism – copyright Bill Gentile

Freelance journalists are at the center of covering many of the most important news stories in Latin America but face increasing threats to their security and well-being. Tough economic realities and competition from the internet have forced most traditional U.S. and European media to close their bureaus across the region since the 1980s. Whereas maintaining a bureau may have cost $250,000 a year (and double that for a TV production team), these companies can now get reporting from freelancers for a small fraction of that cost. Consumers of news in and outside Latin America have become steadily more dependent on unaffiliated journalists for information on key developments.

  • Prize-winning journalist Jason Motlagh, for example, is a freelancer who has done groundbreaking stories on gang activities in El Salvador, even accompanying specialists exhuming the bodies of murder victims whose families yearn to give them proper burial. Independent reporter Frank Smyth has covered violence in Central America, and in Colombia he uncovered that U.S. counter-narcotics aid was being diverted to death squads run by Colombian military intelligence. Ioan Grillo has explored tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border through which drugs and humans are smuggled. Stories such as these are rarely, if ever, reported by the “legacy media” that used to have full-time staffers in the region.

Although news consumers outside Latin America depend on them for ground truth, the freelancers lack the infrastructure and protections of their brethren in staff media positions. They hire local “fixers” to navigate complex places and gain situational awareness, but they depend mostly on their wits – and luck – to survive. Many report feeling exploited.

  • Security is their top concern. Criminal groups target any reporter looking into their activities, and freelancers – who often have the depth, language, and ideals to cover them aggressively – pose a particular threat. When journalists working as staff for traditional media have been kidnapped, their companies have helped get them released – something that freelancers can only dream of. Protection from governments is important too. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 75 of the 251 journalists arrested for their work in 2018 were freelancers.
  • Some companies’ tendency to pay late, or never, is another problem. Even journalists with strong track records report having been assigned stories, submitting them on time, and then waiting months for payment. Overdue fees of up to $60,000 are not unheard of. Because of declining budgets, even excellent reporters working for serious news outlets have been forced to change careers.

Despite these trying conditions, freelancers still do solid journalism that supports the interests of the countries in which they work and the international community. But fairness dictates that the media who use them and the consumers of their news, including Latin America watchers like us, support ways to better protect them and their jobs. Some organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, provide assistance to reporters. The London-based organization ACOS Alliance is trying to “embed a culture of safety” throughout the industry. Its “Freelance Journalists Safety Principles” have been endorsed by nearly 100 news organizations, but the code lacks an enforcement mechanism. Some freelancers have proposed forming a trade union, but the mechanisms for binding media to contracts will be difficult to establish. The elements of a solution are not beyond reach, however. The staff foreign correspondent, representing a powerful media organization in North America or Europe, may be a dying breed, but the truth that they seek to report is not.

October 29, 2019

*Bill Gentile, a veteran news reporter, teaches journalism at American University. His video series, FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, is available on multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Video On Demand and Google Play.

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

New Leadership in El Salvador: Breaking from the Past?

By Eric Hershberg*

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele / Joint Base San Antonio / Public Domain

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s stunning defeat of both of his country’s two dominant parties in February was propelled by promises of change and new approaches to challenges that vexed his predecessors. His initial six weeks in office have featured notable gestures toward fresh directions but also grounds for concern. The country’s problems are many and severe. Decades of paltry private investment has produced anemic economic growth, worsened in recent years by a devastating internal security situation. The limited economic growth that has occurred relies disproportionately on remittances from migrants – the value of which exceeds that of exports – but the circumstances of Salvadorans in the United States are growing more precarious, potentially eroding future transfers. In addition, plausible shifts in trade policy by an erratic U.S. administration could undermine the U.S.-CAFTA-DR trade agreement, threatening critical manufacturing jobs. Corruption, meanwhile, is perceived by the population as no less urgent a challenge as joblessness and impunity for the gangs whose extortion and violence torment much of the population.

Bukele’s winning campaign formula was to promise to turn things around with a new vision and new people. One important signal of change was the President’s order to immediately remove the big block letters “Monterrosa” from the barracks of the armed forces 3rd brigade, in San Miguel, and his hosting a dinner at the Presidential residence for family of the victims of the El Mozote massacre that Lt. Col. Monterrosa had overseen. A handful of initial cabinet appointments signaled an inclination toward meritocracy and gender balance. Yet Bukele has more recently appointed to key positions dodgy veterans of the administration of former President Tony Saca (2004-09), who split (and was later expelled from) his ARENA Party to form a new party, GANA. While Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption, Bukele, who was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and thus lacked a vehicle of his own with which to seek the presidency, opted to run on the vacant GANA ticket. The appearance of figures from Saca’s inner circle is thus not entirely a surprise, but it stands out given the degree that Bukele’s largely platform-less campaign highlighted the battle against corruption.

  • One of his pledges was to create a hybrid (national-international) anti-corruption commission – adapted from the experiences of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – to hold accountable political elites suspected of extraordinary levels of malfeasance. Yet both domestic and external constraints make such an effort less likely than Bukele might have imagined while on the campaign trail, and the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES) seems to have been relegated to a back burner.
  • Equally striking is the new President’s doubling down on militarized responses to gang violence, departing from both his campaign rhetoric and his mode of governance as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-15) and San Salvador (2015-18). Whereas he had entered into pragmatic if unspoken accommodations with the gangs in order to secure governability at the municipal level, he’s now declaring all-out war against the maras, sending the military into gang-ridden communities and clamping down on communication from the prisons from which gang leaders continue to direct operations. During the first week of July – a month after assuming office – he asserted that repression was but the first phase of a comprehensive anti-gang strategy, promising a second phase, focused on social opportunity, that would address the structural factors that draw youth toward lives of criminal violence. But details remain thin, and whether funds will be appropriated by a legislature in which GANA has only a small minority of seats remains to be seen.

Bukele represents El Salvador’s first Instagram and Twitter president – with a penchant for announcing sweeping personnel changes without having informed affected staff in advance. His recourse to social media for proclaiming “you’re fired” aligns him with other western hemisphere presidents eschewing traditional channels of communication with public employees and the citizenry, but in El Salvador as elsewhere this justifies concern over how governance through a cacophony of tweets may affect the quality of democracy.

Meanwhile, the new president has wisely emphasized that cordial relations with the United States are an imperative for his government. More than a third of his compatriots reside there, and he has already taken steps to gain Washington’s blessing for his administration. At U.S. urging, he invited the representative of Venezuelan assembly president Juan Guaidó to his inaugural, and when a Salvadoran father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, Bukele exonerated President Trump’s border policies, saying “La culpa es nuestra.” Nonethelesss, he has been critical not only of Venezuelan dictators who Washington abhors but also Honduran ones who the Americans enable. Meanwhile, observers in San Salvador opine that, contrary to Washington’s wishes, he will not reverse his FMLN predecessor’s decision to deepen relations with China – he needs Chinese investment and recent history offers little reason for expecting analogous resources to arrive from the U.S. Finding the money needed to provide jobs, security and social welfare to the vast majority of Salvadorans who have lacked them may prove as vexing for the outsider president as it was for leaders of the dominant parties of the post-war period.

July 16, 2019

* Eric Hershberg is Professor of Government and Director of CLALS at American University. He took part in a delegation of AU experts for a weeklong visit to El Salvador in June, during which they met with political leaders across the political spectrum, as well as leading journalists, scholars, NGO leaders, policymakers and diplomats.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.