El Salvador: Dealing with the New Reality of Violence

By Eric Hershberg

morazan-el-salvador

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

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.

Guatemalan President’s Mid-term Exam: A Failing Grade?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Guatemala Otto Pérez Molina President / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Pérez Molina’s second annual report to the nation last week at Guatemala’s National Theater featured statistics on the government’s progress, but it may be better remembered for an incident in which a protester threw white powder in the face of Vice President Roxana Baldetti.  A number of opposition deputies boycotted the session, and protestors outside drew headlines.  The President touted specific accomplishments, but his overarching plans –structured in three “pacts” welcomed even by the opposition – have fallen short of expectations.

  • The President in his speech said malnutrition has declined, but critics say that the Zero Hunger Pact is mostly unimplemented and chronic malnutrition persists. National surveys and several studies report that half of all Guatemalan children face a life with deficits in their abilities to learn and be competitive.
  • The Security, Justice and Peace Pact – expected to be a strong point for a former Guatemalan army general with a reputation as an “iron fist guy” – has fallen short.  Pérez Molina said the national homicide rate has dropped from 39 to 34 per hundred thousand inhabitants, but the National Institute of Forensic Sciences has reported a slight increase in murders in the capital and surrounding area.  Crime and insecurity remain a daily reality for Guatemalans, fueling popular frustration that Pérez Molina is not meeting one of his top campaign promises.
  • The Fiscal Pact for Change is also not delivering desired results.  According to Icefi, public finances are in crisis, not because of an external economic shock (2009-2010) or because tax reforms failed to increase revenues (corporate taxes rose 35 percent in 2013).  Rather, corruption is fueling fiscal shortfalls. According to President Pérez Molina and in Vice-President Baldetti’s own words, the influence of organized crime over the Customs System, whose duties and VAT on imports account for one third of Guatemalan tax revenues, is hampering collection.

For a student, a bad grade on a mid-term exam is an alert that things are not going well – but that a serious effort in the second half can save the course and achieve success.  For Pérez Molina, serious effort from now on is going to require more than a speech and applause at the National Theater.  The final exam for him and his government looms large on the horizon: elections will take place in September 2015, and campaigning will be well advanced in 2014. Voters are influenced by their daily reality, not an official report of success and accomplishments more reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland than real life Guatemala.  The President knows the clock is ticking.

Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

Nicaragua: Model for Citizen Security?

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Nicaragua – often accused of keeping bad company on political and economic matters – finds itself in a special group of countries that are doing quite well combatting crime.  Along with Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, it has one of the lowest crime and violence rates in Latin America.  At a discussion* at the Wilson Center in Washington this week (click here for video), experts identified factors explaining why these countries stand out, including the democratic traditions, relatively strong institutional frameworks, and economic stability in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has witnessed dictatorships, coups, chronically weak institutions, and the sort of grinding poverty that fuels chronic security challenges.  Gross generalizations are risky, but analysts probed why Nicaraguans generally trust their police force and commit fewer violent crimes.

Among the key factors is that Nicaragua, like the other three top performers, separated the police from the armed forces and increased civilian control over it.  Unlike in the rest of Central America, where revolutionary movements did not triumph, the Sandinistas abolished the hated National Guard in 1979 and created a force under the Interior Ministry.  Over the course of the Esquipulas peace accords, the elections in 1990, and the passage of a Ley Orgánica de la Policía Nacional in 1996, civilian oversight was institutionalized and respect for human rights and judicial process grew.  The Sandinistas’ promotion of mechanisms for community vigilance – a negative when used to root out suspected “counterrevolutionaries” in the 1980s – later helped communities develop cohesive approaches to citizen security and contributed to respect of institutions.  Another factor is that, like the other three countries under discussion, Nicaragua has a relatively low gun ownership rate.

Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have another thing in common:  none has resorted to the sort of militarized strategies toward transnational or homegrown crime that Colombia, Mexico and the United States have espoused.  The Nicaraguan National Police have generally maintained closer ties with their Scandinavian counterparts, who emphasize addressing the root causes of crime and violence – a philosophy that Nicaraguans of most political stripes embrace more readily than the emphasis on military-style operations.  The steadily worsening situation in Honduras, where Washington has pursued collaboration with the military, has convinced many in Central America that the militarized approach doesn’t work.  The mix of limited training and operational cooperation that the United States provides Costa Rica would probably work well in Nicaragua, but Washington – prodded by legislators who still see Nicaragua through a 1980s optic and condition cooperation on electoral performance – appears cool to fashioning a flexible package of joint initiatives.  Rather than applying the Colombian-Mexican security model to Central America, perhaps the successful elements of the Nicaraguan model can be expanded in the troubled region.

*CLALS Research Fellow and InSight Crime Senior Fellow Javier Meléndez delivered the lead presentation on Nicaragua.

Obama’s Second Trip to Central America

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

The White House has cast President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Central America on May 2-4 as “an opportunity for the President to demonstrate his leadership in the international community in a really important way.”  The spokesman emphasized the “important people-to-people ties” between the United States and Central America because “there are a lot of immigrants” from the region.  The Administration’s press releases stress that the summit in San José, with the presidents of the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic under the rubric of the Central American Integration System (SICA), will focus on collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in the region and on “our ongoing collaboration on citizen security.”

Regional reaction to the visit and summit has been positive – Obama’s interest is clearly welcome – but leaders are already managing expectations.  Costa Rican Foreign Minister Castillo last weekend cautioned that the United States is not able to provide significant new assistance for either economic or security programs.  Commentators note that the visit has not been preceded by the sort of diplomatic activity that would indicate the rollout of significant new policies or programs.

At a summit in Guatemala with Vice President Biden one year ago, Costa Rican President Chinchilla crystalized regional criticism of the U.S. counternarcotics strategy when she said that Central America “is sacrificing the lives, making its enormous sacrifice” and, in a clear reference to Washington, called on the “international community [to] take greater co-responsibility in this struggle.”  Hosting the SICA summit with Obama suggests she is prepared to put such criticism aside, perhaps in hopes that talks focus on the economic and immigration issues.  The White House spokesman’s reference to immigrants – at a time that Obama is pushing ahead with related legislation – may indicate that immigration will be a primary concern for him also.  The last time Obama went to Latin America, for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, he seemed ill-prepared for criticism of U.S. policies, including its counternarcotics strategy, even from Washington’s closest friends.  With perhaps the exception of Nicaraguan President Ortega, the participants in this Central American get-together seem less likely to deliver a similar grilling, making what diplomats call a “successful meeting” very likely.

Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America

By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980's at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores "pablodf" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980’s at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores “pablodf” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world.  “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.

Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence.  Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed.  Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.

Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.

Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.