El Salvador: Dealing with the New Reality of Violence

By Eric Hershberg

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A farm in Morazán, El Salvador, a department that has maintained some sense of normalcy through its strong social organizations. / Cacaopera de Cerca / Flickr / Creative Commons

A surge in violence in El Salvador over the past five-plus years demands a more comprehensive and inclusive strategy than the ongoing Plan El Salvador Seguro.  A rigorous and highly readable study released last month by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social (INCIDE) employs quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate that the pattern of violence in El Salvador has worsened.  Murders increased 66 percent in the 2010-2015 period; the murder rate of 102.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 made it the most violent year in decades.  Multiple-victim murders increased 126 percent in the same period, and murders of women skyrocketed 750 percent – from 40 in 2012 to 340 in 2015.  Gang-on-gang violence has produced a 72 percent increase in deaths, while armed confrontations between gangs and state personnel are growing more frequent.  Kidnappings and disappearance have surged.  For the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has experienced forced displacements, both within the country and to other countries, most notably an unprecedented flow of rural Salvadorans into Nicaragua.

The 2012-2013 truce among the gangs and the government of then-President Mauricio Funes reduced violence somewhat, but INCIDE notes that it also allowed gangs to consolidate their control over territory while government planners failed to address the deeper causes of the violence.  While documenting that Salvador Seguro has had some positive results and won support, the study posits that the current strategy of frontal attack on gangs has also eroded the social and community fabric that represents an essential intangible asset for durable success in reducing violence.  Many communities live in fear of violence from all sides.  The INCIDE report emphasizes that the causes of spiraling violence are complex, deeply rooted, and require integrated responses tailored to specific conditions in different territories.  What is needed, says INCIDE, would be a strategy that:

  • Shuns one-size-fits-all national solutions. The government has failed for years to understand that the drivers of violence and stability are different across territories throughout the country.  INCIDE advocates the creation of a “territorial map” detailing each community’s security situation, the resources it can bring to bear against violence, and what it needs from national-level programs in order to strengthen local communities.
  • Empowers those local communities. A comparison between two locales – in Morazán and Jiquilisco – revealed that the former, which has fewer police and army personnel than the latter, has been able to maintain a more normal way of life because it has strong social organizations and a social commitment to preventing violence through informal vigilance, youth programs, and cooperation with authorities.  Jiquilisco lacks these assets and lives essentially in lock-down mode.

More research and better-targeted territorial strategies are certainly essential, but even INCIDE’s Director, Alexander Segovia (who was a senior aide to President Funes and principal author of the INCIDE study), wouldn’t say they will guarantee success.  In an extensive interview with the on-line magazine Revista Factum, he blamed the failure to stem the violence on the “negligence of the economic, political, and intellectual elites” of the country.  He asserted that El Salvador must “change perspectives – to examine how it’s been dealing with the topic of violence and insecurity, from the design of public policies to the participation of the different actors who make up society.”  Prevailing approaches emphasizing sectoral solutions – strengthening agriculture, industry or tourism in affected areas – have been too piecemeal to bring results.  INCIDE’s research underscores the need for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach tailored to specific local conditions.  Mobilizing and fostering cohesion in communities victimized by the violence may be a lot more difficult, but it is also potentially the most successful means to a solution.

Click here for the full text of INCIDE’s report and here for Director Alexander Segovia’s interview with Revista Factum.

September 26, 2016

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

El Salvador’s Former Guerrilla – and New Commander in Chief

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

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Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren with Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Washington, D.C. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Twenty-two years after participating in the signing ceremony of the UN-brokered peace accord that ended El Salvador’s civil war, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, one of the FMLN’s top guerrilla commanders, was sworn-in as president last Sunday.  The political reforms mandated by the Chapultapec agreement launched the country onto a sometimes tumultuous path toward a new democratic landscape that, at least on paper, included the alternation of power: for 20 years the ARENA party, representing the hard-right, ruled the country; in 2009, moderate Mauricio Funes, a popular TV journalist, and the FMLN established an alliance that took them to the Presidential Palace.  Through the prism of Sánchez Cerén’s recent victory, Funes’s was a transitional government.  El Salvador now begins its first period under the rule of the former guerrilla party that fought an insurrectional war against the allies of Ronald Reagan´s Washington during the last years of the Cold War.

Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN’s challenges are many – a stagnant economy; a private sector not used to a political system that doesn’t respond resolutely to its economic interests; a dysfunctional fiscal system; and one of the worst security situations in the world – with 14 homicides a day, growing gangs, and a reign of impunity inherited from the war years and perpetuated by organized crime’s success infiltrating state and political institutions.

The new leadership will also have to deal with the interests of El Salvador’s most powerful neighbor and ally, the United States.  The Obama administration sent a third-level delegation to Sánchez Cerén’s inauguration, and Secretary of State John Kerry did receive him in Washington before that.  Among the first items on the bilateral agenda is El Salvador’s access to funds in a second compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $400 million program aimed at bringing fresh money to the underdeveloped and poor coastal areas.  The program is on hold because MCC is not satisfied with the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Asset Law and because San Salvador has not yet caved to pressure from the U.S. Trade Representative to buy agricultural products – mainly seeds – within the CAFTA region, which would favor U.S. producers.  Washington’s reluctance to work with FMLN officers in law enforcement and security issues is another obstacle.

So far, Sánchez Cerén and his cabinet have tried to play the U.S. relationship smart.  But managing ties is not going to be a walk in the park.  Despite public winks and carefully worded statements, neither side really trusts the other.  But the bilateral connection is important to both.  Roughly one third of all Salvadorans live in the United States, and, in the last several decades, Washington has appreciated El Salvador’s importance in a region where it is losing influence.  The new government has sent a number of signals to Washington by visiting the State Department, engaging in most of the Treasury’s and USTR’s conditions on the MCC compact and launching an early dialogue with the international financial institutions.  But Sánchez Cerén has made it clear that he will also heed El Salvador’s natural allies, albeit for practical rather than ideological reasons.  Just this week, El Salvador requested formal acceptance to Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan economic and financial aid program.  Dealing with violence, insecurity and financial problems will require fresh resources that the government will welcome wherever their origin.  But it also seems possible that the new commander in chief´s patience with Washington’s style of diplomacy – such as pressure tactics to buy American agricultural goods – could be much shorter than that of his predecessors.  

Salvadoran Gang Truce: Opportunities and Risks

By Héctor Silva, CLALS Research Fellow

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

Despite the general agreement that the truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, has lowered the homicide rate dramatically – from 14 killings a day in 2011 to some 5-6 in 2012 – many serious challenges persist. The truce was brokered by a former guerrilla commander and a Catholic bishop and, after two months of denying a government role, Security Minister General David Munguía Payés acknowledged that his office was the mastermind.  It is now entering a second stage in which six municipalities, ruled by both the governing FMLN and the rightist opposition party ARENA, have pledged to join the initiative. This new stage involves local ad hoc prevention plans aimed at gang members’ families and youth at risk. The truces have become the principal security policy of the Funes administration.

The lack of transparency around the planning and implementation – above all the origin of the initial pact –has fueled skepticism among journalists, politicians and the general public, and polling has not shown wide support for the truce.  The United States has become one of the fiercest critics of the initiative, with its first official reaction a few days after Salvadoran electronic news outlet El Faro revealed details in March 2012 of secret negotiations between the gangs and the Salvadoran intelligence service. U.S. Under Secretary of State María Otero, visiting San Salvador, declared that the gangs must disappear, suggesting disapproval of the appeasement implicit in secret talks, and U.S. law enforcement officials have always been privately skeptical.  The Treasury Department is helping local American police departments attack MS13’s financial networks, which some in San Salvador interpret as a political signal of Washington distancing itself from the truce – an ironic twist given that Munguía Payés was installed largely because of U.S. pressure.  The stakes were raised last week when the State Department issued a warning to travelers to El Salvador, expressing for the first time in writing doubts about the truce.

The Salvadoran state and society face a complex road ahead.  The reduction in the homicide rate is, of course, welcome, and opposition to the second stage of the plan, the municipal sanctuaries, will be muted in a preelectoral year.  (The ARENA candidate for President, Norman Quijano, has remained skeptical but seems likely to jump on the bandwagon.) But with its ambiguous public stance on the truce despite its Security Minister’s political commitment, the Funes administration has not pledged to fund the second stage of the truce, and it seems very unlikely that the United States will be stepping in.  Another factor is that while El Salvador´s security operations are constrained by the truce, other important problems – such as extortion, drug trafficking, impunity and corruption – remain untouched. Furthermore, evidence is slowly emerging that the organized crime rings are using the circumstances to expand their influence and take advantage of their relationship with some of the gangs’ most violent cliques to enhance trafficking routes. Washington’s skepticism about the truce is valid and should be followed up with an emphasis on the underlying causes of El Salvador’s ills.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.

El Salvador’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photo by: rosaamarilla via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/3395160591/

A months-long political feud over the Supreme Court in El Salvador has blossomed into what observers are calling a constitutional crisis.  The first shot was fired in April when legislators from the FMLN engineered a “legislative decree” to replace five court Magistrates, the outgoing Assembly’s second shot at choosing justices during its three-year term.  The court’s Constitutional Chamber in June declared the decree unconstitutional – because each Legislature gets to vote only once for Magistrates.  At the same time, the Chamber invalidated a similar move by the opposition ARENA party affecting Magistrates chosen in 2006.

The theater came to a head this month when two feuding Supreme Courts met in different wings of the same building and claimed legitimacy – one with five members elected in 2009 and the other with the 10 invalidated members.  The rightwing ARENA party and its allies in Washington are claiming the crisis represents a shift against democracy by the FMLN.  Two Cuban-American members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Obama Administration to impose sanctions – principally suspending negotiations on a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if the crisis is not ended quickly and in the manner they wish.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for prompt resolution, and the U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador and the State Department have expressed “concern.”  A Washington Post editorial this week lambasted the FMLN for shifting toward Chávez-style authoritarianism and President Funes for failing to stop it.

This episode reflects maneuvering within the FMLN – fueled by frustration that President Funes’s soft line toward ARENA has only weakened the party’s influence – and poor judgment among activists on where and how to pick the fight.  The legislators rushed the decree because they anticipated correctly that they were about to lose control of the Assembly in elections several weeks later.  The crisis falls into a much more ominous pattern, however, in that – like the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) – the right wing and its coreligionists in Washington exploit events to challenge the democratic credentials of a democratically elected reformist government to rationalize weakening it, while the Obama Administration responds timidly.  ARENA is again demonstrating its superior lobbying skills in Washington, which have already severely disadvantaged President Funes on issues such as relations between his security cabinet and its U.S. counterparts – resulting in a serious erosion of his own influence over security issues.  If the current political impasse is not resolved to the satisfaction of U.S. conservatives, Washington’s threats – ironically directed against the Administration’s “best friend” in Central America – will likely continue and relations will be strained, further persuading hardliners around Funes that moderation pays no dividends.