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This page is where David provides periodic commentary on issues he considers important, and on which he pretends to have more than a passing knowledge.

May 21, 2009

The El Salvador Mauricio Funes Inherits: Crime
In my two most recent postings, I discussed the recent election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, to the presidency of El Salvador. A former correspondent with CNN Español, he is the first leftist ever elected to that post. (Although José Napoleon Duarte was elected president during the civil war years, he was a Christian Democrat, and thus something of a socially conservative economic moderate. To be sure, he was considered a Communist by the hard-line right, but the left saw him as a straw man for the Americans and the oligarchy.)

This posting deals with the dire crime situation Funes faces in El Salvador upon taking office.

Another issue that reflects the political divisions in El Salvador is the lack of crime control. ARENA, the right-wing party that ruled El Salvador from 1988 up until Funes' election in March, responded to the upsurge in crime with a series of get-tough policies labeled mano dura ("iron fist") or super mano dura, with little or no perceivable effect except a burgeoning prison population.

There is no question that crime is an outstanding problem in El Salvador; in fact, El Salvador is now one of the most violent countries in the world. Its homicide rate in 2006 was 56 per 100,000 individuals, according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, a rate 10 times that of the United States. This homicide rate has continued unabated. Per the Los Angeles Times, in the first three months of 2009, 12 people were killed each day.

Gang violence, an increasingly destabilizing narcotics trade and a flawed judicial system in which few if any killings are ever adjudicated creates a lawless atmosphere in which even ordinary business disputes and personal vendettas are readily solved by physical attack. Gun shops, which barely existed a decade ago, are common neighborhood features. You can hire someone to kill a rival for $50; for $100 if you want to see the body.

And it's not just violence eating at the social fabric. Glue sniffing by young street kids is virtually an epidemic. Since they can't buy the glue themselves due to age restrictions on sales, they're given the glue by others who recruit them into robbery and other crimes. Licking it abates their hunger, sniffing it gets them high. There are even accounts of poor mothers giving their children glue when there's no food to offer. The good news: Kids often outgrow their glue sniffing. The bad news: They graduate to crack.

There are those who lay all these problem solely at the door of the maras, the youth gangs that originated in the U.S. and were deported to El Salvador and other Central American countries after tough immigration legislation was passed in the U.S. Congress in the mid-1990s. But many observers see the problem as more complex—and political.

Eduardo Linares, a former guerilla comandante who has become a senior police officer in San Salvador, remarked:
"The same problems that gave rise to the war have not been addressed. El Salvador has become the refuge for powerful criminal syndicates who use the street gangs from Los Angeles as a convenient smoke screen to deflect attention from their activities. Organized crime enjoys almost total impunity."
Father Antonio Rodriguez, who runs a violence-prevention program at his church in the Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador, agrees. He says it's easy to scapegoat gangs for all of the violence when, in fact, a large percentage of the country's homicides are committed by others.

Tutela Legal, a Salvadoran human rights organization affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has analyzed homicides every year since 2004 and concluded that hundreds were committed by rogue police officers, private security guards and people hired to carry out "social cleansing"—the elimination of undesirables through extrajudicial executions. This increase in extrajudicial killings attributable to private security guards invariably evokes comparisons to the death squads of the civil war.

Father Rodriguez also thinks the get-tough policies have actually made things worse. He says the gangs used to protect their neighborhoods and attacked only outsiders, but with more and more members in prison, the result of the mano dura crackdown, they now lash out anywhere—attacking, robbing, extorting, killing—because they need money to support their incarcerated associates and families.

Whoever is doing the killing, youths are disproportionately affected. Half of homicides last year were committed by people 18 to 30, according to the National Civil Police (PNC), and 70% of victims were between the ages of 15 and 39. (Note: Although the age of victims is easy to establish, the ages of perpetrators seems intrinsically suspect given the lack of prosecutions.)

Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer opined that the solution to El Salvador's crime problem is to have private security companies play a greater role in crime control—ignoring the church's findings that many such companies have been heavily involved in extrajudicial killings. (Glazer, an adamant ARENA supporter, resigned his post in January 2009 in response to an Obama administration order requiring the resignation of all politically appointed ambassadors.) FMLN deputies, along with the current director of the PNC, Francisco Rovira, have labeled this approach "worrisome" due to the fact that several owners of the country's major private security companies are also influential members of ARENA. Turning law enforcement over to such security firms would risk a situation where law enforcement was not just privatized, but politicized.

And the exponential growth of the private security sector has done little to curb crime. Dimas Rojas, another former comandante who now works in the private security sector, remarked:
"There are just as many deaths now as there were during the war. I hope this doesn't get worse, but I don't see any outlook that this is going to stop. In this country there are more private security guards than police officers."
Meanwhile, there has been a disturbing increase in police corruption, above and beyond the extrajudicial killings.

The former national police chief was forced to step down after local media reports accused two close advisers of corruption and links with drug traffickers. And two aides to current national PNC director Francisco Rovira (quoted above) resigned when he was police chief in San Salvador after media investigations said one ran a private consulting firm with suspected drug traffickers as clients and the other used police license plates without authorization.

Because of the nation's soaring crime problem, the FMLN last year sought to secure independence for the Department of Internal Affairs, a unit within the troubled PNC. After the 2007 discovery of a clandestine group of four hit-men serving as PNC officers, the FMLN proposed reforming the police by making its Department of Internal Affairs independent so that it can investigate the PNC more efficiently. ARENA opposed this proposal as a "political maneuver by the FMLN to discredit the work of the PNC."

However, former PNC Director Rodrigo Avila (ARENA's candidate for president, who was defeated by Mauricio Funes) also admitted that the PNC was being permanently audited by the General Accountability Office (GAO) with the goal of the PNC's "better optimizing its resources." Then-president Antonio Saca himself confirmed that an investigation had been going on involving human trafficking directed by a Chinese mafia outfit. The investigation resulted in the discovery of ties between a handful of PNC officers and some high profile gang murders.

Despite the steps taken to try to restore credibility to the organization, the reputation of the PNC has been thoroughly tarnished by the aforementioned and many other comparable incidents. One was a massive May 2007 confiscation operation against street vendors working in downtown San Salvador. This resulted in numerous arrests, a large protest, and panic among bystanders. President Saca and his Minister of Security, Rene Figueroa, designated the vendors "terrorists," and called for enforcement of the new custom-tailored ARENA-backed Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Organized Crime Law. These sloppily written and vague measures defined as "terrorism" what formerly had been called only vandalism, with the new crime being punishable by decades in prison.

Given the political polarization that typifies El Salvador, it seems unlikely that president-elect Funes will have an easy time getting ARENA officials to cooperate in anti-crime and anti-violence measures that aren't just more of the same. During the campaign, ARENA went so far as to accuse Funes' party, the FMLN—formerly the political arm of the guerrillas during the Salvadoran civil war—as playing a similar role, i.e., that of legitimizing political mouthpiece, of Mara Salvatrucha, the street gang formed in Los Angeles that now has influence throughout the U.S., Mexico and Central America.

No such claims were ever supported with evidence, and most consider them hyperbolic nonsense. There are indications that gangs have corrupted some small town governments by rigging the elections and funding candidates who promise to turn a blind eye to the gang's operations, but there is nothing to indicate the FMLN in any way endorsed or was even aware of such acts.

Besides which, ARENA has been rocked by corruption scandals of its own, of a far more insidious and damaging nature. Beyond the connection between San Salvador's police chief and narcotics traffickers mentioned above, El Faro, a digital newspaper, recently released a tape recording in which ARENA's San Salvador director, Adolfo Tórrez, can be heard speaking with fugitive national deputy Roberto Silva, who fled the country with his wife after being accused of narcotics trafficking, corruption and money laundering. In the taped conversation, Tórrez states that for $500,000, he can clear Silva of all charges, and that judges and prosecutors have already been contacted and brought on board. Compounding the scandal is the fact that the national prosecutor, Attorney General Félix Garrid Safie, also an ARENA party member, had access to the taped conversation but dismissed charges against Tórrez.

In the light of such scandals at the highest level of government, ARENA's attempt to depict the guerrillas from the civil war as the ideological forebears of street gangs is a transparently political ploy to discredit the FMLN as "pro-criminal" while at the same time elevating the status of gang members to that of "terrorist." This tactic manages to both demean the FMLN while at the same time justifying the increasingly harsh measures ARENA and its supporters have historically favored, measures the FMLN and human rights groups—as well as men like Father Rodriguez—continue to decry, and which have produced little in the way of concrete results to curb the increasing levels of crime in the country.

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Sources consulted for this piece include:


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