El Salvador: Dual Crackdowns Raise Questions

By Fulton Armstrong

El Salvador Seguro

Photo Credits: Presidencia El Salvador and Departamento de Seguridad Pública OEA (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén’s months-long crackdown on gangs has broadened into a crackdown on proponents of negotiations with them.  Upon orders of Attorney General Meléndez, 18 former officials involved in the past truce (covering two periods in 2012-2014) have been arrested, among them a principal mediator, former FMLN Congressman Raúl Mijango.  Three others, including the former head of prisons, are on the run.  Meléndez claims that the recent passage of legislation outlawing negotiations with gangs was not a factor, and that the detainees are not being held for their role negotiating the previous truce, but rather for violations of laws in place during the truce.  They are accused of “dereliction of duty,” “illicit association,” smuggling mobile phones into prisons, and possible misuse of US$2 million for truce implementation.  Meléndez said the government-gang pact “was not illegal” and he noted that it did help reduce reported murders, but he has asserted that it gave rise to disappearances and other violence, and allowed the gangs to re-arm and consolidate their control in some sectors.

The campaign against pro-dialogue voices has left several prominent players untouched.  The government has distanced itself from the activities of current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia, whose taped conversations with gangs have been revealed by the media, but he has been neither fired nor arrested.  Former Security Minister (and current Defense Minister) David Munguía is widely seen as the principal architect of the previous truce (securing essential cover from the Church for it), but he too remains in place.  Munguía’s name is prominent in Meléndez’s report, according to press accounts, but the Attorney General said that he lacks evidence of his involvement in wrongdoing.  Paolo Luers of El Diario de Hoy (himself a secret negotiator in 2012) and others are severely criticizing the lack of charges against Munguía while others, whom they call “political prisoners,” are detained.

  • Meanwhile, the government is deploying elite joint Army-Police units to hunt down alleged gang members in the countryside, amid growing unconfirmed reports of human rights violations.  The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman has identified 13 cases of extrajudicial killings in two operations last year.

The recent arrests have caused debate to flare over the costs and benefits of the past truce and any future agreements with the gangs – as well as the efficacy of the mano dura approach. The crackdown on advocates of negotiations and the simultaneous emerging signs of death squad operations could threaten the credibility of the Sánchez Cerén government’s El Salvador Seguro strategy, which entails an array of efforts requiring political agreement on how to address the violence crisis.  Amidst mounting concern about the implications of the police and army crackdown on gangs, Washington has kept a low profile on these developments.  If current trends continue, however, the dual crackdowns could potentially raise doubts about the Administration’s ability to meet the human rights and other conditions that the U.S. Congress has put on the Alliance for Prosperity under which El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have agreed to form and execute a common strategy against violence and other problems in Central America’s northern triangle.

May 16, 2016

For previous AULABLOG items on the impact of the Salvadoran truce, click here (January 2013), here (November 2014), and here (April 2015).

*This version of the blog was updated May 16, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

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

Belize: An Outlier in the Middle of the Mess

Belize - Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Belize – Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Though off the radar of most analysts, Belize appears to be the latest casualty of the drug trade and criminal violence.  It debuted on the Obama Administration’s annual blacklist of major drug-transit and -producing countries back in September 2011, alongside El Salvador, filling out the roster of Central American countries.  That U.S. government spotlight, however, has done little to halt the Mexican drug cartels’ expansion into Belize.  The U.S. State Department now estimates that about 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled each year along Belize’s Caribbean coast – partly the work of local contacts established by the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel.

Like its neighbors’ security challenges, Belize’s problems are not limited to drug trafficking.  Urban gangs and the rivalries among them are the main driver of the escalating violence, which is rooted in the same causes as in neighboring countries – institutional weakness, rampant corruption, impunity, and unemployment.  The government-sponsored gang truce negotiated in 2011, which featured “salary” payments to members who ceased violent activities, collapsed last December when funds dried up.  (Click here for details documented by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Belizean authorities tallied a record number of homicides last year, edging out neighboring Guatemala for the sixth place slot in global per capita homicide rankings.  Porous borders make Belize attractive to transnational gangs, particularly El Salvador’s MS-13 and Barrio 18, both of which have established a significant presence in the capital city, Belmopan, and elsewhere.  About one-fifth of the country’s 325,000 people are Salvadoran citizens, making it difficult to track criminal elements.

The deteriorating conditions in Belize raise questions about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics and “citizen security” programs in the region.  The patchwork of U.S. initiatives under the umbrella of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has not reversed regional trends even in tiny Belize.  While the country’s law enforcement agencies welcomed the heavy equipment, training, and technical assistance that make up the bulk of CARSI funding, the tactical gains have been obscured by a worsening strategic outlook.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office has voiced its concern that the State Department is confusing efforts with results.  Moreover, neither the Belizean nor U.S. government has mapped out a preventative strategy.  The most recent data show that less than half of the funds allocated to Belize from CARSI’s Economic Support Fund, used for programs to help at-risk youth, has been spent, and after handing out 1 million Belizean taxpayer dollars to gang members during the truce, for example, there is little to show for it.  In the run-up to President Obama’s summit with Central American presidents next week, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s statement that “Obama hasn’t done anything for Belize” was subsequently qualified, but the fact remains that U.S. partnership with Belize, like with its neighbors, has not begun to work yet.

**An earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the word “Belizean” before “taxpayer dollars” in the concluding paragraph, giving the false impression that State Department funds had been used to subsidize Belize’s gang truce.

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.