Public Security Challenges for El Salvador’s First Leftist Government

When Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes took office in 2009 his administration promised to tackle crime in all its forms through social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, victim support, and institutional and legal reforms. However, after attacks on two buses in San Salvador on June 20, which killed 17 people, the Funes administration resuscitated old and failed iron-fisted policies towards street gangs, who officials say were behind the killings. With a surprising capacity for historical amnesia, the government is now abandoning its previous reservations about gang suppression and argues that the current bloodshed requires radical measures.

Sonja Wolf

On the night of June 20 unknown assailants opened fire on a microbus, killing three people in the working-class neighborhood of Mejicanos in San Salvador. Shortly afterwards attackers targeted another microbus in the same municipality, and this time they killed the driver before dousing the crowded vehicle with gasoline and setting it ablaze. With the vehicle’s only door locked, the desperate passengers were trapped in the flames. When police arrived on the scene they managed to break some of the bus windows and help 11 individuals escape. In the end, 17 people perished, and 11 more remain hospitalized with serious burn injuries.

The authorities immediately condemned the massacre as an act of terrorism. The police, for their part, attributed the crime to the Dieciocho street gang and arrested eight individuals suspected of orchestrating or executing it. The sheer brutality of the attack stunned a population already accustomed to high levels of violence. Yet, while such a sinister event was previously unheard of in the post-conflict period, crime and violence as such have been afflicting El Salvador for years.

It was widely expected that the new administration of Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s first leftist government, would adopt a different approach to gangs. Its security plan, while containing no explicit gang policy, proposed an entirely new strategy to those of the previous governments of the rightist ARENA party: Tackle crime in all its forms through social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, victim support, and institutional and legal reforms.

However, three days after the Mejicanos massacre Funes said in a speech on national radio and television that: “We know that in the long term the policies of social inclusion and prevention will deliver results, but in the short term the violence is being fought with repression. And this is what the government has been doing and will continue to do.” The President sent the military to take control of gang-run prisons and announced an anti-gang law modeled on earlier legislation that the FMLN had severely criticized. With a surprising capacity for historical amnesia, the party is now abandoning its previous reservations about gang suppression and argues that the current bloodshed requires radical measures.

Homicides and extortions have become the nation’s chief concerns and — given investigative weaknesses — are mostly committed with impunity. The National Civilian Police largely ascribes these offenses to the country’s two main street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Dieciocho. These groups had been founded in Los Angeles’ Latino immigrant communities during the 1980s. But once the Central American armed conflicts had ended, U.S. immigration authorities deliberately targeted gang members and increasingly deported them to their countries of origin where they made existing gang phenomena much more virulent.

Today these gangs maintain a presence in the United States and northern Central America. In El Salvador alone their current numbers reach an estimated 20,000, including 8,000 in the prisons. Known for their striking tattoos and ready use of violence, gang youths constitute an important source of insecurity, particularly in El Salvador’s marginalized urban communities. The true amount of gang-related homicides is hard to determine, but forensic data suggest that they constitute only some ten percent of all homicides committed in the country. Extortions, however, mostly within the country’s transport sector, represent much of the gangs’ income, reaching an estimated annual amount of $8 million among imprisoned gang members alone. In order to enforce their demands gang members frequently turn to burning buses and killing bus drivers. In 2010 at least 77 motorists have already been murdered. Furthermore, gang youths are increasingly being recruited by Mexican drug trafficking organizations to work as guards and sicarios (hit men).

In 2003 President Francisco Flores of the ARENA party introduced Plan Mano Dura, the country’s first anti-gang policy. Though this hard-line policy fell in line with ARENA’s historic tendency towards militarism, the party introduced the plan as a vote-gaining measure right before the 2004 presidential elections. The authorities and the conservative media exaggerated the nature and impact of gang activity. The population, who at the time was more concerned about the country’s economic situation, started to perceive the gangs as the most pressing policy issue and was largely in favour of gang suppression. Mano Dura allowed massive area sweeps and was accompanied by anti-gang legislation that permitted arrests of suspected gang members on the basis of their physical appearance alone. This anti-gang law was later declared unconstitutional.

Given its popularity with the majority of Salvadorans the Mano Dura strategy was continued by the following president, Antonio Saca (2004 to 2009), also of the ARENA party. The plan, however, turned out to be highly counterproductive: The murder rate escalated, and the gangs became more criminally-involved. Warehoused in separate prisons, they soon turned the jails into their command centers from which many homicides, extortions, and kidnappings have been ordered.

The Funes government had launched a series of crime prevention measures, including youth sports, municipal-level crime observatories, firearm carrying restrictions, and a greater focus on community policing. Although these beginning attempts have been made to implement comprehensive crime control strategies, violence continues to rise in the country. After a slight drop in 2007/2008, homicides once again climbed and in early 2010 rose to a daily average of 14, thus surpassing even the daily average of 11 reached in 2006, the most violent year under Plan Mano Dura. At the same time there has been an unusual incidence of massacres. Before the Mejicanos attacks eight such killings had occurred in 2010 alone. Given this trend El Salvador retains its reputation as Latin America’s most violent country.

The political opposition, particularly ARENA, claims that the government lacks a clear crime strategy and has criticized the security cabinet for its alleged incapacity. The chief target of this criticism has been Manuel Melgar, the current Minister of Justice and Public Security and a former guerrilla commander. However, Funes’ detractors have called for the resignation of the entire security cabinet, demands that became louder in the aftermath of the Mejicanos massacre.

The reasons for the increasingly deteriorating security situation, however, remain unclear. Is the Funes administration too inexperienced to design an appropriate crime policy or is the spike in killings merely the continuation of a trend that would defy any government? Or is the crime wave the product of a destabilization plan plotted to pave the way for the right’s return to power? The destabilization theory is gaining currency, but a combination of the above factors may well be the most likely scenario.

ARENA has begun to recover from its loss at the ballot box and is waging a campaign aimed at discrediting its archrival. The condemnations found their maximum expression after Funes’ first year in power. “Throughout this first year Salvadorans have seen how that pact between the FMLN and Mauricio Funes has turned into a government that is disoriented, conflictive, and unable to tackle the country’s most critical problems, such as crime, the high cost of living, and employment creation,” said Alfredo Cristiani, former President and current ARENA leader. Billboards popped up across the capital decrying the FMLN government’s “incapacity.” The country’s conservative media have chimed in, launching almost daily attacks on the government and highlighting the growing distance between Funes and the FMLN.

The party that governed El Salvador for the past 20 years appears bent on reaping political benefits from the current lawlessness. ARENA has been glossing over its own responsibility for the persistence of inequality, insecurity, and impunity in the country, while offering to join the fight against crime, although no sound proposal has followed suit. Evidently, being a constructive opposition is not in the party’s interest if it intends to recover the presidency in 2014.

In November 2009 the escalating violence and public clamor for respite led Funes to authorize a six-month army deployment to the 19 most crime-ridden communities. The military has been participating in public security tasks since the mid-1990s. Now, however, the army been given broader powers, permitting it to conduct patrols, perform searches, and arrest criminals caught red-handed.

The soldiers’ presence has provided the population with an illusion of security but achieved no overall reduction in homicides and invited sporadic reports of abuses. Nevertheless, in May 2010 the army’s mandate was extended for another year. The government expects the army to curtail arms and drug trafficking in 62 previously unguarded border areas. An additional 1500 soldiers have been sent to the prisons to guard the perimeters and search personnel and visitors entering/exiting the facilities.

El Salvador’s jails suffer from inhumane conditions, acute overcrowding, and deficient rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, pervasive corruption has facilitated the introduction of money, weapons, and cell phones, the latter routinely used to transmit orders to street-based gang members. The military is meant to step in and sever all communication between the inmates and the outside world while the prison system is being purged.

The Funes government’s repressive turn may satisfy public demands for an end to crime and violence, but can fuel greater corruption and abuses among the army. Military intervention in the prisons in particular is likely to incur the wrath of gang members who wish no interference with their criminal activities. Moreover, the army’s deployment diverts some $10 million from other state institutions and risks deflecting attention from the urgent need to strengthen the justice system.

Even with the best of intentions the cash-strapped Salvadoran state would have found it difficult to come to grips with the host of structural problems it faces. The Mejicanos massacre, however, has only intensified pressure for immediate solutions to the violence. The indignation caused by the attack has closed the little political space that existed for prevention and triggered a revival of the same populist measures that were fruitless under previous administrations.

Opposition legislators have suggested the death penalty, businessmen call for a state of exception in crime hot spots, and in social networking sites people recommend the extermination of gang members. ARENA finally unveiled its long-touted security plan, which describes the street gangs as the country’s chief crime problem and proposes the creation of a military anti-gang squad tasked with arresting gang members, military-led gang rehabilitation centers, and an Alcatraz-style gang prison on a Salvadoran island . President Funes declared that he intended to adopt the “positive elements” of ARENA’s highly repressive security plan, but it is unclear how most of the proposed measures would be funded. Nor has any political party insisted on the need to address organized crime, which hires gang members as its foot soldiers and is a more serious security challenge.

Ironically, the gang member suspected of setting fire to the microbus and its passengers has since handed himself in. The youth, originally instructed to kill only the driver, had spontaneously disobeyed this order and now fears for his life. However, with his rash response to the mounting political and media pressure Funes has inadvertently opened the door to more repression. In sum, the current panorama -auguring more violence and less reflection- is discouraging. Ultimately, El Salvador has a chance to become a more peaceful country once the violence no longer affects only the poor, and politics ceases to obstruct the search for an effective public security strategy.


Sonja Wolf is a post-doctoral fellow at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico where she conducts research on street gangs and drug trafficking. She can be contacted at sc.wolf@gmx.de.

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