Colombia: Forced Disappearances Remain High in Norte de Santander

By Jessica Spanswick and Javier Ochoa*

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

The Colombian department of Norte de Santander, along the most heavily traveled part of the national border with Venezuela, has the highest rate of forced disappearances in the entire country – increasing as implementation of the historic peace accord signed in 2016 has faltered. Homicides, kidnappings, and other disappearances have all surpassed national averages. Fundación Progresar, an NGO based in the province’s capital, Cúcuta, estimates that one person in the area was forcibly disappeared every three days in 2018. During fieldwork with the NGO in 2019, we interviewed surviving family members and heard their accounts of suffering. Some of the reasons for these disappearances have deep historic roots, such as the perennial absence of sustained, trusted government presence in the area, but others reflect trends that have grown in importance since 2016.

  • Armed groups filling the void left by the formal demobilization of the FARC have proliferated. In the last two years, the criminal activity of at least a dozen armed groups was registered in Norte de Santander, ranging from enduring guerrilla groups (National Liberation Army, ELN; the Popular Liberation Army, ELP, also known as Los Pelusos; and dissident FARC groups); armed groups resulting from the demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2004 (including Los Rastrojos); and organized criminal groups (including purported affiliates of the Sinaloa Cartel). Most are engaged in highly profitable cocaine production, narco-trafficking, and gas-smuggling activities in the area.
  • Our analysis of data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the number of hectares under coca cultivation in Norte de Santander grew from 6,944 in 2014 to 33,958 in 2018, with no sign of abating. The government abandoned voluntary eradication programs and did not honor agreements to help communities within the framework of the peace accord. The province provides a strategic corridor for smugglers to bring in Venezuelan oil products for transportation and to make drugs – more than 100,000 gallons a day when it’s available – and exfiltrate the finished cocaine.

A massive influx of Venezuelans fleeing crisis back home has also led to a spike in disappearances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million Venezuelans (many of Colombian heritage) have fled the country, the vast majority passing through or staying in Colombia. Many, distrustful of both countries’ officials at formal ports of entry and without a proper channel to receive refugee status, transit informal trocha crossings controlled by criminal groups, where they are at risk of extortion, human trafficking, sex trafficking, murder, and forced disappearance. Our research shows that even those paying a fee to pass through these areas are subjected to abuses.

  • Many Venezuelans, including children, are forced to work as raspachines (coca leaf pickers), who have told human rights groups that they want to go to school but are working essentially as indentured slaves. Older youths have been recruited as soldiers. According to five military commanders, as many as 30 percent of the insurgents in that region are Venezuelans who take up arms “in return for food and pay.” They receive more than 27 times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Others are pressured by criminal groups to join. Another problem is that an increasing number of Venezuelan women and girls are victims of human and sex-trafficking rings in the province. According to local organizations interviewed by Refugees International, they “are often forced to ‘pay’ for passage by providing sexual services.” UN Humanitarian Affairs officials (OCHA) say that “fear of being deported or arrested keeps [[victims]] from seeking help from local authorities.”

The standard solution for reducing the influence of criminal groups in situations like this – establishing state control – remains elusive. The Colombian government has the resources and institutions to address the problem, but it has been slow to take action. Some 99 percent of complaints remain in the initial phase of the criminal process (indagación) – with little chance of moving toward deeper investigation and prosecution. Of 1,106 cases, only six are on, or approaching being on, trial. Having met face-to-face with the families of victims, we know how difficult – and unsatisfying – it is to tell them that governments, NGOs, and others are “doing all they can” to find justice for them.

June 9, 2020

* Javier Ochoa and Jessica Spanswick are recent Master’s graduates of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. Ochoa interned with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Spanswick interned at Fundación Progresar, the Colombian Truth Commission, and the Guernica Center for International Justice. The full text of their study is here.

Latin America: Organized Crime Taking Advantage of COVID-19

By Carolina Sampó*

Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela Villa Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil/Phillip Ritz/Flickr/Creative Commons License (not modified)

Latin American criminal organizations have faced some new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic – such as disruptions in transportation routes and markets – but they have also exploited opportunities to expand operations in ways that further threaten governments’ control in vulnerable communities.

  • Shelter-in-place controls in the region and the United States have complicated the groups’ most profitable business area: drug trafficking. Moreover, breaks in supply chains, especially those related to chemical precursors from China, have caused shortages of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid preferred by U.S. drug users, and ingredients used to make methamphetamines.
  • Trafficking of cocaine and other plant-based drugs has not stopped within Latin America, although some reduction in their movement to market has driven up prices somewhat. Quarantines have posed new difficulties for transportation, but traffickers usually avoid legal border crossings and pass through areas with no or minimal government presence anyway. Governments have also moved detection and interdiction resources elsewhere. Brazil, as the region’s main consumer, still seems to be receiving regular shipments of cocaine.
  • Shipping drugs outside the region has been more difficult because airports are closed and commercial ship traffic has declined, but criminal organizations have accepted to run the risks of continuing their own maritime activities, which raises the price to consumers. Authorities say that cocaine shipments tend to be large – over one ton – and narco-submarines are being used.

Supply and demand have both declined during the coronavirus outbreak, but prices of meth and synthetic opioids have risen considerably – some even tripling in recent weeks, according to U.S. official sources. Demand from consumers of illicit drugs at parties is down with the implementation of social distancing, but dealers in food delivery services are distributing their merchandise directly to users’ homes. Supply and demand seem to be balanced, but dealers are charging higher prices for their enhanced service and greater risks.

As in the past, criminal organizations are showing high adaptability. International experts report the groups are increasingly getting involved in cybercrime. They have also been caught peddling counterfeit medical items. Interpol has seized substandard masks and sanitizers as well as drugs the gangs claim will help people combat the virus. The pandemic has also enabled criminals to deepen their ties with vulnerable communities, such as by providing essential goods and services.

  • They are consolidating criminal governance in the communities where they play the role of social order providers. In the slums in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the criminal organizations have been the ones to enforce lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID‑19. Where criminal organizations cannot guarantee social order, they use violence or cooptation to establish territorial control. And they continue efforts to expand prison control, using jails to recruit members and build their power base. During the coronavirus outbreak, the gangs have organized riots and jailbreak attempts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Power in the prisons projects into power on the streets.

The pandemic has forced governments to prioritize resources on the health and economic crises it is causing, and efforts to control criminal organizations have by necessity been more lax. The gangs are also scrambling to return to “normalcy,” but they are again demonstrating greater adaptability than are the governments.

  • Governments have no easy solution. While organized crime is diversifying its portfolio of activities, reinforcing its territorial control, building its prison base, and recruiting new members – exploiting the economic and social situation – governments have little choice but to beef up efforts any way they can domestically while paying special attention to cooperation with neighboring countries facing similar challenges, in hopes of hemming in the criminal organizations. It is a huge challenge – against difficult odds – but perhaps the pandemic also gives governments a one-time opportunity to hit the gangs at a time that they face challenges too.

May 22, 2020

* 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.

Latin America: Growing Threat from Brazil’s PCC

By Ludmila Quirós*

City view of Pedro Juan Caballero

Pedro Juan Caballero City, Paraguay/ Wikimedia Commons

The Brazilian prison gang “First Capital Command” (PCC) is extending its influence far beyond the original base it had in Brazil when it formed around 2005, now threatening security far beyond prison walls and Brazil’s borders. Over the past 10 years, according to my estimates, PCC has consolidated its power in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states. Moreover, the group’s criminal activities – attacks, prisoner escapes, and drug-related activities – now involve branches in Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina – and as far north as Venezuela and Colombia. They have sleeper cells (Argentina and Uruguay); alliances with clans linked to narcotraffickers (Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela); and deep penetrations of governments (such as Paraguay).

  • In Paraguay, where the depth of its cooptation of state authorities is most obvious, PCC is most active. In mid-January, the dramatic escape from a Paraguayan prison on the Brazilian border underscored the scope of the problem. Some 75 prisoners, including a dozen PCC members, fled the Pedro Juan Caballero Prison through a tunnel that Paraguayan authorities knew about but were unable to close because of corruption at multiple levels, according to numerous sources.
  • In Argentina, national authorities have been tracking the group’s growth since the first infiltration of cells in 2018, when elements attempted to enter a jail in Oberá, in the province of Misiones near the “Triborder Area” with Paraguay and Brazil. Otherwise, the group seems to be keeping a low profile, suggesting an emphasis on the emplacement of sleeper cells for the time being. These individuals could be involved in creating “micro-trafficking” networks and establishing communications with allies under arrest for drug activities, but confirmation is lacking.
  • Other PCC members appear to be setting up in Uruguay, where preliminary circumstantial evidence suggests they’re involved in laundering PCC funds, and in Bolivia, where establishing drug routes into Brazil would be top priority. In Colombia and Venezuela, which are more directly involved in the drug trade, PCC has similar activities, according to research. Efforts in Colombia involve “transfers” of senior PCC members to that country to negotiate the purchase of drugs and to manage their transport through chains that get the product into Brazil.

Although PCC’s corrosive influence is being felt gradually throughout the continent, Paraguay is clearly the group’s most vulnerable target. Its allies function as full franchises of the Brazilian PCC, and the prison escape, indicating that they have bought the cooperation of very senior officials, suggests it is able and willing to assume an even greater role in the country. PCC’s ability to negotiate among gangs in Brazil on issues as sensitive and strategic as levels of violence and truces means that in even more vulnerable societies, such as Paraguay, it could rise to play a kingmaker role on a range of security matters. In that context, prison escapes like last month’s enable it to do more than recruit local members and allies; they give PCC concrete leverage to use in interactions with Paraguayan authorities.

  • This possible contagion effect – infiltrating other countries and developing loyal followers – will increasingly challenge the regional and national security institutions in the region at a time that governments are distracted by other pressing issues and there is relatively little understanding of how organized crime is evolving.

February 6, 2020

Ludmila Quirós is a researcher at the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT) and the International Relations Institute, La Plata National University in Argentina.

Presidential Elections in Mexico: Tough Campaign, Tougher Challenges Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands at a microphone

Frontrunner candidate in Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, speaks to the press. / ANDES / Micaela Ayala V / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election officially begins next week, and no candidate appears to have an insurmountable advantage over the others.  Polls vary, but Andrés Manuel López Obrador (MORENA) appears to be the frontrunner, with 35 to 44 percent of support.  He is followed by PAN-PRD coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya, who has between 24 and 31 percent of the vote.  The PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, seems a third option, at about 20 to 26 percent, and Margarita Zavala, the only independent candidate who officially obtained registry, lags far behind.  It is too early to see if voters will base their decisions on party loyalty or on perceptions of the candidates.

  • López Obrador (widely known by his initials, “AMLO”) has broad name recognition – 84 percent of Mexicans are familiar with him for better or for worse – but Anaya, Meade, and Zavala have an important opportunity to build new images and attract voters. Indeed, AMLO sometimes seems to be in a race against himself; his rhetoric is often harsh, and his disregard for international free trade alienates a large sector of the business world and the media.  His mixed signals regarding a “review” of the contracts made in conjunction with energy reforms have fostered distrust and uncertainty.
  • Ricardo Anaya’s strategy appears likely to be open confrontation with PRI candidate Meade, aiming to attract PRI voters who see him as the candidate best positioned to prevent an AMLO victory. Anaya’s focus has been on winning the endorsement of key figures in states that constitute large electoral strongholds, such as Jalisco.  However, Anaya’s alleged involvement in a money laundering scandal stands to undermine his support.   PRI Secretary General Claudia Ruiz Massieu tried to tar him in an international context last week by giving the OAS a file with evidence she claimed substantiates the charges against him.  Anaya has cried foul.
  • José Antonio Meade, a highly skilled and seasoned technocrat associated with both PRI and PAN presidencies, is being held back by his association with the very unpopular incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto. He is trying to cast himself as a PRI “sympathizer,” rather than as a party “militant” responsible for recent years’ weak performance.  To distance himself from his party’s image of electoral fraud, corruption, and crony capitalism, he has emphasized his commitment to transform the PRI.  The party is cooperating, framing him as a “citizen candidate.”

While candidates are immersed in the customary personal attacks against each other, violence appears to be playing into electoral politics with renewed intensity.  The Second Report of Political Violence in Mexico, prepared by the risk assessment firm Etellekt, documents 141 attacks against politicians and public servants since the start of the pre-campaign period last September.  Over 50 of these attacks have been assassinations of officials, incumbents, and candidates at all levels of government.  Violence is worst in Guerrero, Veracruz, the State of México, and Puebla, all states with significant organized crime.

Public insecurity is certain to join organized crime, corruption, inequality, and redistribution of income as central in the Mexican landscape as elections approach, and each candidate will pledge to make those issues his or her top priority.  As in other Latin American countries, the election also appears likely to signal the deepening discredit and low representation of the traditional party system.  Voters could very well select a candidate who, while not an outsider, presents him- or herself as committed to attacking the corruption of the major parties.  While running on a law-and-order slate, the candidates will also likely promise new approaches on the “war on drugs” that, led by both PAN and PRI, has devastated the country – with little or no prospect of avoiding the same pitfalls as predecessors.  Winning the election on July 1 will not be easy for any of the declared candidates; governing once in office will be even harder.

March 23, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

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: The Maras, Community Action, and Social Exclusion

By Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Maras and gangs in El Salvador have become social actors with great power in communities suffering from a high level of social exclusion. They have been linked to violence and organized crime, and they have been blamed for the highest number of homicides, organized criminal actions, and the generalized insecurity in which the country lives. They have brought a sense of isolation to the communities in which they live, as well as a reputation that increases the communities’ exclusion. According to a study being conducted in crime-ridden communities of Santa Tecla (near San Salvador) and Sonsonate (64 km. west of the capital), the maras’ power derives from their ability to cause fear and terror among inhabitants as a result of their effective and organized criminal actions. Their influence has a strong psychological impact and broad influence over people’s lives. The criminal activities of the gangs in the community are generally rejected by inhabitants because they put families at risk, make neighborhoods the target of police operations, and taint both the community and its residents socially – making it hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Nonetheless, many citizens in these communities have a positive assessment of the maras when it comes to providing important neighborhood security, due to a lack of national or local authority. In Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, the Salvadoran government, the municipality, international organizations, and other institutions have invested heavily in programs to stem the tide of mara violence, with mixed results. These communities suffer from low levels of employment, education, and social security, particularly among women. Afraid of retribution, citizens in these communities do not turn to state institutions to report crimes or to request protection, and they instead approach the maras to take actions regarding conflicts with neighbors and situations related to domestic violence. The void in institutional services, which has been permanent in some communities, is being filled by the maras and their members, making them the primary support for the local Asociaciones de Desarrollo and implementers of development plans.

Changes in the community philosophy of the National Civilian Police (PNC) in one of the communities of the study offers a useful example of how new approaches can help improve citizens’ lives. The PNC’s new approach to the community and its underlying social and security problems has also led to the evolution of the maras’ role as community actors and their legitimacy in the people’s eyes, primarily based on the fear they instill. This has benefited some communities.  Likewise, international cooperation – which has played an essential role – and the recent implementation of community policing practices as a model within the national security strategy to reduce gang criminality have driven debate on how communities can confront violence and crime in a sustained manner. The problems are far from resolved, but the gangs, the police, and the state each appear to be redefining strategies and roles. It remains to be seen whether these actions are sustainable and applicable in other territories – and whether the maras’ involvement in development programs can help create conditions for citizens to cope with the violence and social exclusion that plague their communities.

* Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya are researchers at FLACSO-El Salvador.  Their study is funded by the International Development Research Centre.

Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.