Policing Crime in El Salvador

Sonja Wolf

Over the past 20 years, violent crime has steadily increased in Central America. The prevalence of homicide is most acute in the region known as the Northern Triangle—composed of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—where 128,270 people were killed from 2000 to 2010. El Salvador, long considered the most violent of the three nations, recorded a per capita homicide rate of 65 per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of the decade, while in post-coup Honduras, that figure rose to 82. In Guatemala, meanwhile, the number stood at 41.1 According to a comparative study by the United Nations Development Program, the Central American isthmus is experiencing the highest levels of non-political violence in the world.2

A key driver of crime in the region is the activity of street gangs, notably Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle Dieciocho (18th Street). Locally known as maras, these groups formed in Los Angeles’ immigrant barrios, where Central American war refugees found shelter but struggled with precarious living conditions, discrimination, and cultural alienation. Many of the youths sought respect and belonging in gangs and—following stepped-up deportations—imported U.S.-style gang culture into their countries of origin. MS-13 and the Dieciocho soon absorbed existing gang phenomena and made them more virulent. Today both groups are responsible not only for a substantial share of homicides in the Northern Triangle but also for the majority of extortions.

Another factor in the mounting violence is the growing importance of Central America as an operations center for Mexico’s drug-trafficking organizations. The region has traditionally constituted a transit zone for illegal narcotics. However, the heightened presence of Mexican cartels has ignited fierce disputes over drug markets and smuggling routes. The bloodshed engulfing the isthmus is further fueled by the widespread availability of firearms. Most killings, however, remain in impunity due to deficient investigative capacities. The pervasive insecurity is perhaps most sorely felt in marginal communities, where gang and drug activity is rife, the state is largely absent, and residents are unable to afford private security services.

Following the end of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which had pitched the government army against the guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the country responded to crime with repressive policing and stiffer laws. From the Peace Accords in 1992 through the next 17 years, the country was governed by the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), established shortly before the outbreak of the armed conflict to defend elite interests and privileges. In March 2009 an electoral alliance between the leftist party and Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and nonmilitant member of the FMLN, ended 20 years of conservative rule. As president, Funes pledged to break with the punitive trend that had prevailed under previous administrations. The fight against crime, resting on prevention and investigations, has since been led by Manuel Melgar, an ex-guerrilla commander.

In November 2011, however, Melgar abruptly quit as minister of justice and public security. His appointment had met with the disapproval of the U.S. government, which holds him responsible for the 1985 Zona Rosa attack, carried out by Melgar’s guerrilla unit and resulting in the deaths of four off-duty U.S. Marines.3 To all appearances his resignation had been a condition imposed by the U.S. government in return for signing the Partnership for Growth, a U.S.-sponsored development initiative aimed at dismantling the key barriers to economic growth, notably insecurity and low productivity.4 Funes then granted the portfolio to retired general David Munguía Payés, previously the minister of defense and a founding member of the Friends of Mauricio movement, which had rallied support for the reporter’s presidential campaign.

The appointment of Munguía Payés triggered an extensive overhaul of the security cabinet and the public security policy that had characterized the early phase of the Funes administration. First, Eduardo Linares was forced to resign as chief of the State Intelligence Agency (OIE). The president, fearing that the FMLN had been both spying on and withholding information from him, had not trusted the ex-guerrilla commander and was considering conferring some intelligence tasks to the armed forces.5 In the end, Ricardo Perdomo, an economist close to Munguía Payés, and Colonel Simón Molina Montoya, a former Munguía Payés adviser, were appointed as director and deputy director of the OIE, respectively.

In January ex-guerrilla commander Carlos Ascencio was dismissed as general director of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and replaced by retired general Francisco Salinas Rivera, hitherto deputy minister of defense. Salinas promptly proceeded to change the principal police leadership. The key moves included transferring Commissioner Howard Cotto from his post as deputy director of investigations to deputy director of public security (previously held by Commissioner Hugo Ramírez) and handing Cotto’s job to Commissioner Héctor Mendoza Cordero. Commissioner Omar García Funes, under investigation by the Inspector General for suspected ties with drug traffickers, was named chief of the Western Region where the Texis Cartel, El Salvador’s chief drug-trafficking network, holds sway.6 The reassignments marginalized individuals committed to crime prevention and scientific investigations and once again gave a prominent role to those with a background in the old security forces.

The appointment of Salinas to head the PNC sparked the resignations of Inspector General Zaira Navas, who had made a concerted effort to investigate corrupt police officers, and deputy minister of justice and public security Henry Campos, who had reportedly been at odds with Munguía Payés over the importance of prevention programs.7 Campos’s job has been assumed by Douglas Moreno, hitherto chief of the prison system, but the inspector general’s post has yet to be filled and additional personnel swaps may follow. The sweeping changes occurred in the space of nine weeks, despite the positive performance of the previous post holders. Clearly, the rotations were related not to questions of capacity but to an image-concerned Funes and the likelihood that the generals are more comfortable working with individuals with a similar background and viewpoint. The appointments of Munguía Payés and Salinas were condemned by the FMLN and the human rights community, which are concerned that placing members of the military in these posts not only violates the 1992 peace agreement, which prohibited the Salvadoran armed forces from playing an internal security role, save under exceptional circumstances, but may also herald a return to the earlier hardline approach to crime.8

The designations of Munguía Payés and Salinas, however, also reflect a broader trend of military participation in crime fighting within Central America. In Guatemala, for example, the conservative Patriot Party’s Otto Pérez Molina—a retired general and the first member of the military elected president since the country’s return to democracy in 1986—took office in January. Pérez Molina, former head of army intelligence, had campaigned on an “iron fist” (mano dura) anti-crime platform and has pledged to deploy the notorious Kaibiles against drug traffickers. An elite army unit known for its grueling training, the Kaibiles have been implicated in wartime massacres, and some of their members have joined the Zetas, a Gulf Cartel enforcer group formed by Mexican elite soldiers that now operates independently.9 These developments also coincide with the United States’ encouragement of Latin American militaries to perform internal security roles against “non-traditional threats” such as organized crime and street gangs.10

The appointment of Munguía Payés and Salinas, widely interpreted as a return to El Salvador’s authoritarian past, merely consolidates military participation in public-security tasks. The peace accords disbanded the old security forces, which had stood under military command, lacked investigative capacity, and had been tarnished by abuses and corruption. The treaty also established the PNC and reduced the functions of the armed forces to the defense of national sovereignty and territory. In addition to civilians and demobilized guerrilla fighters, the PNC incorporated vetted members of the old security corps who imposed an authoritarian stamp on the new institution. Furthermore, the armed forces have been supporting deterrent patrols since 1993, when police building advanced too slowly in the face of rising crime. Even though the Salvadoran constitution mandates that military participation in public-security provision is meant to occur only temporarily and when ordinary measures to restore order have been exhausted, it has since proved permanent. The armed forces, for example, played a prominent part in policing gangs under the mano dura policies (2003–06). For ARENA governments, disinclined to strengthen institutions and address the social roots of gangs and crime, this show of force constituted a visible and simple response to an increasingly pressing problem.

Although military involvement in public security did not demonstrably contribute to lowering crime rates, the Salvadoran population views these activities favorably and generally ranks the armed forces as one of the most respected institutions in the country.11 This assessment might seem paradoxical, given that the armed forces, together with paramilitary groups and death squads, were found responsible for almost 85% of human rights violations committed during the war.12 Evidently, though, the army is valued for its professional assistance with disaster response and health campaigns. Besides, citizens tend to distinguish the military’s past abuses against innocent civilians from today’s harsh treatment of suspected criminals. The mass media stigmatize alleged delinquents, especially gang members, such that a society that is desperate for a respite from violence welcomes the repression of perpetrators more than it opposes it. Yet the deployment of soldiers did little more than create a subjective perception of security, affording governments political credit for their ostensibly firm stance on crime.

Funes had vouched to discontinue this punitive strategy given its counterproductive effects. His administration offered to tackle crime comprehensively through social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, and victim support, as well as institutional and legal reforms. The proposed plan, however, has remained underfunded due to empty state coffers, itself the product of a low tax base, high debt levels, and past corruption. Attempts to boost resources by introducing a security tax on the rich was rejected by the private sector.

On the positive side, the Funes administration has initiated efforts to root out police and jail corruption, improve victim support, and strengthen local-level social prevention, and the PNC has been working to enhance investigations and community policing. Moreover, since annually more than 70% of homicides are committed with firearms, the authorities have sought to instate a nationwide prohibition of gun carrying.13 However, insufficient political backing for this initiative has permitted the implementation of gun bans in only about 40 crime-ridden municipalities.14

On the downside, less than half a year into Funes’s term, escalating homicide rates and allegations of government incompetence prompted the image-concerned president to give weight to repression. He gradually increased the number of soldiers in policing tasks to 8,200 (almost half the force) and ironically granted the army broader powers than conservative administrations had done.15 The military now helps patrol 29 crime hot spots, guards 62 informal border crossings to intercept contraband, and has been deployed to 11 of the country’s 19 prisons to secure the perimeters and search visitors to prevent illicit items from being smuggled in while less corruptible prison guards are being trained.

Greater numbers and powers notwithstanding, the army’s impact on public security is doubtful. Munguía Payés affirmed that the armed forces had reduced the crime rate in its area of operations by 70% and prison-based shakedowns had dropped.16 However, the number of killings has continued to climb (making 2011 the most violent year in the century so far), and the street gangs are increasingly operating in rural zones and have modified their methods of extortion.17 Based on anecdotal evidence, the current minister of justice and public security also asserted that the maras are responsible for 90% of homicides and has declared a war on these groups.18 This offensive is meant to include a compulsory two-year military service for gang-prone teenagers, the creation of a military-trained police anti-gang unit, and more extensive policing powers for the military.19

Bringing the army into public-security provision entails a series of risks. First, soldiers are trained to defeat an enemy, not to collect evidence, question suspects and witnesses, and protect the population with minimum force. Given the military’s logic and firepower, its participation in policing often leads to abuses. Currently, 158 cases of alleged human rights violations committed by armed forces personnel since November 2009 are under investigation by the human rights ombudsperson.20 The Ministry of Defense, though, has rejected the complaints, arguing that they are designed to tarnish the army’s reputation.21

Second, the military’s participation in the fight against drug trafficking exposes the institution to potential penetration by criminal organizations. Although the armed forces are frequently asked to substitute for crooked police, they are not immune to corruption, since it is difficult for military salaries to compete with the economic power of organized crime. Since at least 1996 thousands of weapons and hundreds of grenades have been removed from military depots and in some instances used in crimes.22 In 2011 one former Salvadoran military official, who acted as recruiter for the Zetas, was convicted in the United States for arms and drug trafficking.23 Both cases suggest that the spread of corruption within the armed forces is a real and disturbing possibility.

Third, military involvement in crime fighting absorbs resources that are required to bolster the security and justice apparatus. As long as the armed forces step in to compensate for police deficiencies, the government may not muster the political will to invest in more effective law enforcement. The sector’s persistent weaknesses, in turn, ensure that the armed forces will continue their role in internal security.

Deploying the army may reassure fearful citizens and bring a temporary respite from chronic violence, but far from lessening a multifaceted problem, it augurs a more complex scenario for El Salvador and other parts of the isthmus. Past experiences show that repression exacerbates existing crime levels and the resulting insecurity prompts citizens to demand ever harsher measures, to the detriment of human rights and the rule of law. In a nationwide survey sponsored by the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, and conducted in late 2010, more than 72% of respondents did not care about the type of government as long as it resolved the nation’s problems, and more than 45% would even support a coup if security and economic issues went unresolved.24

The United States can promote a more effective approach to gangs and crime by reducing its military assistance to Central America and devoting more resources to police and justice reforms. Ultimately, however, Salvadoran society itself needs to recognize that crime and violence will only diminish through the persistent implementation of structural measures, including professionalized investigations, anti-corruption programs, gun control, prison management and rehabilitation, more inclusive socio-economic policies, a tax reform, and strengthened community cohesion.



Sonja Wolf is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she has been researching security issues in Mexico and Central America.




1. Carlos Mendoza, El desafío regional del Estado de y para la Democracia. Documento de Trabajo preparado para el Informe Estado de la Región 2011 (CABI, 2011), 18.

2. PNUD, Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano para América Central 2009–2010 (PNUD, 2009), 64.

3. El Faro (San Salvador), “Washington recrimina que ministro de Seguridad sea una persona ‘con sangre en sus manos,’ “ December 8, 2010.

4. El Faro, “Presidencia informa que Manuel Melgar dejó Ministerio de Seguridad,” November 8, 2011; On the Partnership for Growth, see U.S. Department of State, Partnership for Growth, fact sheet, November 29, 2011.

5. Edith Portillo, “Funes pensó en recortar poder al OIE y pasárselo a los militares,” El Faro, December 8, 2010.

6. Sergio Arauz, Óscar Martínez, and Efren Lemus, “El Cártel de Texis,” El Faro, May 16, 2011.

7. Redacción Diario CoLatino, “Henry Campos renuncia de Seguridad Pública,” Diario CoLatino (San Salvador), January 30, 2012.

8. Voces (San Salvador), “Polémica ante nombramiento de nuevo ministro de seguridad,” November 23, 2011, available at voces.org.sv.

9. Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio, Vol. 1, Chapter II (CEH, 1999); Mariela Castañón, “Kaibiles: Entrenamiento al límite y cuestionada mutación al crimen,” La Hora (Guatemala City), June 27, 2011.

10. George Withers, Lucila Santos, and Adam Isacson, Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Military and Police Roles in the Americas (WOLA, 2010).

11. Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública, Los salvadoreños y salvadoreñas evalúan la situación del país en 2010, boletín de prensa no. 2 (IUDOP, 2010), 4; IUDOP, La victimización y la percepción de inseguridad en El Salvador en 2009, Boletín de prensa No. 5 (IUDOP, 2009), 4.

12. The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador (United Nations, 1993), available at derechos.org.

13. Beatriz Castillo, “Tres mil 193 armas han sido decomisadas,” Diario CoLatino, November 24, 2011.

14. Nelson Rentería, “Índice de criminalidad y violencia se mantiene pese a esfuerzos,” ContraPunto (San Salvador), July 8, 2011.

15. Magdalena Flores and Fernando de Dios, “Munguía: estamos en guerra contra las pandillas,” ContraPunto, March 6, 2011.

16. Beatriz Castillo, “Ejército se prepara para expandir presencia en zonas rurales donde migró la delincuencia,” Diario CoLatino, May 10, 2011.

17. David Marroquín, “Pandillas cambian forma de extorsionar a sus víctimas,” El Diario de Hoy (San Salvador), December 15, 2011.

18. Francisco Valencia and Beatriz Castillo, “Munguía Payés no descarta crear una unidad policial ‘antipandillas,’ ” Diario CoLatino, December 1, 2011.

19. Daniel Valencia, Gabriel Labrador, and Patricia Carías, “Funes propone servicio militar obligatorio para jóvenes en riesgo,” El Faro, June 1, 2011.

20. Magdalena Flores, “PDDH tiene 158 expedientes contra militares,” ContraPunto, February 16, 2011.

21. Magdalena Flores and Fernando de Dios, “Munguía: estamos en guerra contra las pandillas,” ContraPunto, March 6, 2011.

22. Jeannette Aguilar, “Urge investigar la procedencia de armas militares,” Diario CoLatino, January 14, 2010.

23. El Diario de Hoy, “Investigan a ex capitán ligado a Los Zetas y a pandillas,” October 11, 2010; El Diario de Hoy, “31 Años de cárcel para Capitán Muerte por tráfico de armas,” August 5, 2011.

24. Ricardo Vaquerano, “Salvadoreños consideran sacrificable la democracia,” El Faro, February 2, 2011.




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