Crime Continues to Rise in El Salvador

Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.

DSCF0265President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.

Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.

President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”

President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.

Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.

Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.

50 kilos of Coke Decommissioned in Honduras

In recent years, El Faro has posted numerous articles and reports that document organized criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in El Salvador. A few days ago they published a detailed account of Istvan Zachary Sánchez and his August 2012 arrest in Honduras for transporting 50 kilograms of cocaine. The story indicates that Istvan is part of the Texis Cartel that operates out of Metapan and controls a trafficking route from Honduras, through El Salvador, and on to Guatemala.

While there are many unknowns about this case, it offers some details about how traffickers operate and how the authorities respond or fail to respond.

Instead of translating the whole El Faro article from Spanish – it’s pretty long – we thought it better to retell an abbreviated version. If you read Spanish and have the time, the original article is worth reading – here’s a link.

Police stopped Istvan while he was driving down a dirt road in rural Choluteca, Honduras, a province nestled between El Salvador to the west, Nicaragua to the east, and the Gulf of Fonseco to the south. When the police pulled him over they asked what he was doing so far off the main highway. He responded that he had been to the city of Choluteca to visit a girlfriend and was headed back to El Salvador. The police didn’t buy it because the Pan-American Highway would have been his most direct route.

They asked Istvan to step out of the 2005 Hyundai Terracan he was driving so they could search him and the car. At that point he handed the police officer an envelope with $600 (the equivalent to 1 ½ months salary for a Honduran police officer) and asked him to just let him get on his way. El Faro points out that there is a lot of corruption within the Honduran police department, but Istvan had the bad luck of getting pulled over by an officer who was not for sale.

They searched the Hyundai and found 50 kilos of cocaine wrapped in clear plastic and brown tape, and tucked into a hole between the trunk and chassis. The load was valued at $600,000 and $1.2 million. The police charged Istvan with trafficking and put him in the Choluteca jail. He has hired a private attorney and is supposed to have his first hearing before the end of October.

Salvadoran security officials had the Hyundai and license plate (P111-483) on their radar for a while. In April 2012 the Salvadoran Center for Police Intelligence drafted a three-page report in which both the car and the license plate were mentioned in relation to drug trafficking and money laundering, and members of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network based out of Metapan and Texistepeque, Santa Ana. The report was part of a larger file that had been shared with the top levels of government including the Minister of Security and Justice. It discussed Roberto “El Burro” Herrera, José Adán Salazar (aka Chepe Diablo), and a series of vehicles and people used to transport money and drugs. In May 2011, El Faro published a series of reports/articles on the Texis Cartel – definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen them yet (here’s a link).

The April report says, “also, the vehicle license plate P111-483 has been observed in some transactions; the [Hyundai] was observed in agricultural fairs in which the subjects Burro Herrera and Chepe Diablo participated. The same plate was seen with other vehicles crossing the border at Poy [a border crossing near Metapan where the Texis Cartel is allegedly based].” This seems to directly tie the Hyundai that Istvan was driving and the 50 kilos back to the Texis Cartel in Santa Ana.

After the police arrested Istvan, Choluteca prosecutor Manuel Eduardo Díaz sent the case to the Honduran Office Against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking, which is supposed to investigate drug trafficking. It’s not clear why, but the investigators sent the case back. Manuel Eduardo Díaz, however, decided to prosecute the case on his own. The situation got a little more complicated, and tragic, when last month assassins shot and killed him in downtown Choluteca. Police made arrests but deny any link between the murder and Istvan or the 50 kilos of cocaine.

Police on both sides of the El Salvador/Honduran border claim they are trying to figure out where the drugs were going, where they had come from, who Istvan was working with, and other questions. But so far the Salvadoran and Honduran authorities have yet to get too far or even discuss the case.

After the arrest, Salvadoran Police visited Istvan’s parents who live near the Cuscatlán stadium in San Salvador – he had listed their home as his permanent address. His family didn’t have any information, just a suitcase with some of his personal papers, which revealed that left for the US when he was 14. They also found that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had a file on him related to drug trafficking. Other documents indicated that Istvan had been incarcerated in the US but released in May 2009.

At the same time police were visiting with Istvan’s family in San Salvador they raided the home of Mario David Rodríguez Linares in San Miguel. In October 0211 he bought the 2005 Hyundai that Istvan had used. He sold it in May 2012 but didn’t register the sale with the Vehicle Registration Office so records indicate that he is still the owner. The search turned up a lot of sales records that have opened up the pool of suspects, but when investigators called Linares to come in to make a statement he never came. It still remains unclear how Istvan had possession of the car.

The April 2012 report ties the license plate on the Hyundai (no P111-483) to a business that helps traffick drugs north and money (from drug sales) south. The police have been watching a car lot in Santa Ana owned by Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez. He allegedly hides money (millions of dollars) in shipments of cars that are headed for Costa Rica. The car lot is on the same block where earlier this year police arrested Jesús Sanabria (former councilman of Metapan) for trying to sell five kilos of cocaine. The report also says, “Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez is linked criminally with Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernández, alias El Burro.”

Salvadoran prosecutors say they trying to connect all the pieces and identify how Istvan and his 50 kilos of cocaine fit into the drug trafficking/money laundering networks. Prosecutors investigating the case in El Salvador say they have solicited information from their counterparts in Honduras, but officials in Choluteca say that during the months that they’ve had Istvan no Salvadoran has reached out to them.

El Faro’s article is interesting because it provides a glimpse into the world of trafficking in El Salvador. We hear and read that drug trafficking and money laundering are big problems, but this story provides some insight into what this looks like. It demonstrates that trafficking can be as nondescript as a grey Hyundai driving down a back road.

The article also illustrates how hard it is to stop trafficking. Top ranking security officials in El Salvador have reports that detail who is trafficking, who is laundering money, and when and where shipments are arriving. They have details about the cars they use and the police even caught a guy with a 50-kilo shipment. But not much happens. Istvan got unlucky and got pulled over by a cop who wouldn’t take a bribe. But the Honduran agency that is supposed to take drug trafficking cases refused to investigate and the local prosecutor who was investigating was assassinated. The Salvadoran officials who are “investigating” on one side of the border haven’t even gone to interview Istvan or called to get information about his case.

Obama Admin designates MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization”

On October 11, 2012, the Obama administration designated la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) a “transnational criminal organization,” allowing federal officials to freeze the gang’s financial assets in the U.S. The goal is to weaken the gang and make their illegal enterprises less profitable. MS-13 is alleged to be involved in drug dealing, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, and extortion in the United States and El Salvador. Gang members in the U.S. allegedly generate large profits from these activities and send money to gang leaders in El Salvador. These illegal ventures often entail violence and have earned MS-13 a high ranking among the world’s most violent gangs.

According to the “LA Times,” U.S. financial institutions “are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department,” said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali. This will make it more difficult to use banks and wire transfers to conduct gang activity. Police in Los Angeles and Washington DC hail the Obama administration’s decision as a necessary and positive step. They believe the scope of the gang’s activities will be diminished if they have fewer financial assets and are unable to use the banking system to transfer and launder money.

Only two other gangs have been labeled transnational criminal organizations: the Mexican Zetas and Japanese Yakuza, and MS-13 is the first gang to have originated in the United States to receive this label. One thing curious about the Obama Administration’s designation is that it targets MS-13 and not 18th Street, one of El Salvador’s other large gangs.

By requiring that banks identify and freeze M3-13 assets, Government officials seem to be giving the banks a lot of authority. They are going to have to have clear guidelines in place to help banks and financial institutions distinguish legitimate targets from hardworking Salvadorans sending money home to their families. Even if there is an appeals process in place for people who believe their assets have been wrongfully seized, many who send money to El Salvador are undocumented and may be afraid to step forward.

Seizing financial assets may prove important for cracking down on organized crime, but it won’t stop illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. What is still lacking is a comprehensive approach to providing legitimate economic and social opportunities for youth so that they have options beyond joining gangs. It requires treating our drug habit as a public health issue and not just a criminal justice problem.

The Evolution of Gangs as Political and Social Actors in El Salvador

Foreign Affairs (Latin America edition) published a series of articles in 2011 discussing the supposed emergence in Mexico of a “narcoinsurgencia.” The term was used to describe Mexican drug cartels as a form of insurgency that could threaten the state. Most experts agreed that organized crime couldn’t be considered an “insurgency,” noting that they are motivated by profits, not by a political or ideological agenda.

Powerful criminal organizations often penetrate every aspect of the society they operate in, including politics, culture, the economy and its democratic institutions.  In certain circumstances, criminal organizations take over or replace the state—providing security, administering justice and funding social works projects for the benefit of the communities under their control. This was the case of Pablo Escobar in Medellin, Colombia in the 1980s and is the case today in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Despite significant influence in certain Latin American countries, however, criminal organizations have never been seen as legitimate political and social actors.  This may be changing in El Salvador, where gangs seem to be evolving into influential political and social agents.

Similar to drug cartels in Mexico, gangs in El Salvador are a source of instability and an obstacle to the economic, social and political development of the country.  Successive governments since the 1990s have adopted hard-line policies towards gangs with programs such as Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura.  The effectiveness of such an approach has been limited as violence has seemingly increased without restraint despite the government’s tough stance.

President Funes came to office promising a new approach—a mix of punitive measures and social and economic programs to combat the root cause of the gang phenomenon in El Salvador.  More than half way thru his five year term, Funes has failed to reduce the level of violence and improve public safety. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (70 for every 100,000 inhabitants).

In this context, the recent dramatic reduction in the daily homicide rate of almost 60 percent has been welcomed with skepticism by Salvadoran civil society. According to public accounts, the reduction in violence stems from a “truce” between the two main gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and Barrio 18).

El Faro first broke the story March 14, reporting that the government had held secret negotiations with gang leaders, which resulted in the transfer of some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country from maximum to lower security facilities in exchange for a reduction in the daily homicide rate.  Other media reports alleged cash payments from the government to the families of certain gang leaders. The government denied any negotiations had taken place.

Catholic Church officials later revealed that they had mediated between the two gangs.  Gang leaders and church officials also denied any government involvement, and characterized the negotiations as an extension of a long process of “reflection.” The mediators described the truce as an “act of good will” from the gangs towards society. Government officials have since acknowledged a supporting role in the mediations.

Since the disclosure of the “truce,” gang leaders have asserted themselves as legitimate political actors, issuing press releases, appearing in political talk shows from prison and even proposing national policy changes.  Their rhetoric is decisively political, arguing that gangs are a product of “misguided socioeconomic policies derived from the economic models implemented in El Salvador.”  In public comments, gang leaders talk about “social exclusion, marginalization and repression” and claim to represent the interest of their “members” and their “barrios.”

Negotiating with criminal organizations is often discussed as a policy alternative in Latin American countries afflicted by high levels of violence. Proponents argue that the state can appease violent criminal groups without breaking the law and allow for the pacification of society. The reduction in violence would bring economic benefits that would serve to reinforce a virtuous cycle that would eventually diminish the influence of organized crime.

Appeasing criminal organizations through negotiations and concessions, however, are probably unsustainable unless the government is also willing to address the socio-economic and political issues that allow for gangs to flourish. El Salvador’s civil war and its gang phenomenon grew out of the same structural inequalities that have haunted the country for much of its history. Ultimately, El Salvador will be unable to escape the violence, whether it manifests in gangs, organized crime, or civil war, until it deals with the structural causes.

It is also a struggle to consider criminal organizations as legitimate representatives of the marginalized masses, even in the areas that they control. Their legitimacy stems not from democratic elections but from violence, fear, and the victimization of society as a whole. Violence is their main bargaining chip when they sit down at the negotiating table, and their recourse is to continue holding society hostage. And if El Salvador is going to have a democracy, fear and violence cannot be allowed to serve as a route to political and social legitimacy, just like wealth should not give one person more of a voice than another.

The evolution of gangs as political and social actors reflects the failures of the Salvadoran state and the country’s democratic institutions.  The state has failed to effectively perform its most basic functions; to guarantee the security of its people. El Salvador’s democratic institutions have failed to produce policies to incorporate the marginalized masses into the economic, social and political life of the country.

While the decrease in violence is welcomed, the Salvadoran government must take advantage of the respite to begin addressing the fundamental problems they have been ignoring for generations. Otherwise, its just a matter of time before the violence begins to rise again.

Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

Los Zetas in El Salvador: Is There a New Gang in Town?

Evidence is mounting that the Mexican paramilitary group Los Zetas has begun to infiltrate El Salvador in search of weapons.  The recent seizure of 1,812 grenades is now suspected to have been destined for a group of Zetas in Guatemala.  News sources have linked the stolen grenades have implicated a recently vanished army major with ties to the Zetas.

 

Los Zetas is a Mexican cartel that includes many former members of the Mexican Special Forces.  The gang is sophisticatedly organized and brutal, and its members are intelligent and very well trained. It is estimated that about 35,000 people have died in Mexico since Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, started cracking down on drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico in 2006.  Calderón’s mandated closing and patrolling of spaces and territories in Mexico that were known to be dominated and controlled by drug cartels, namely Los Zeta, has been effective, and has spurred parts of the gang to migrate to locations where the can more easily operate.

 

Funes has explicitly stated that there is a group of Los Zetas that is exploring El Salvador, trying to form alliances or open relations with local gangs and drug traffickers.  He doesn’t necessarily believe that gang members will settle in El Salvador, as they are currently doing in Guatemala, but he worries that they are arriving with the intent of acquiring assault weapons.  Funes reasons that there are many weapons in the hands of Salvadoran civilians that have not be registered or legalized as a consequence of 12 years of civil war within the country.  This makes weapons transfers easy and virtually undetectable, providing a prime opportunity for the Zetas to acquire arms in El Salvador.

 

However, others have raised the specter of a more permanent move by Los Zetas into El Salvador.  In addition to its abundance of weapons, El Salvador’s use of the US dollar may make it an easy place to launder drug money.  Recent seizures of large amounts of cash and the discovery of a purported Zeta training camp in the vicinity of Guazapa have added to fears that the drug war may have found a new battleground.

 

Anti-mining Activist Juan Francisco Duran Found Dead in San Salvador

Yesterday, officials found the body of disappeared anti-mining activist Juan Francisco Duran Ayala. On Sunday we posted an article about Juan Francisco’s June 3rd disappearance after he left classes at the Technological University in San Salvador where he was completing his masters in linguistics. The day before he had been hanging anti-mining flyers in Ilobasco as a volunteer for the Environmental Committee of Cabañas in Defense of Water and Cultura (CAC), when he was followed and harassed by members of the local police and mayor’s office.

Though few details are available at this time, officials report that Juan Francisco’s body was found in a common grave in the Lamatepec neighborhood located in San Salvador, close to Soyapango. The cause of death appears to be a single gunshot to the head.

Given Juan Francisco’s involvement with the CAC and his activities the day before his disappearance, as well as his father’s leadership within the FMLN veterans group in Ilobasco, there is plenty of reason to suspect that this was a politically motivated crime. If so it would be the tenth homicide over the past two years related to civil society’s participation in the debate over mining and other controversial issues in Cabañas. In addition to the murders, civil society leaders have received a constant stream of threats and several have been assaulted.

As the police and Attorney General’s Office begin investigating Juan Francisco’s murder, it is important to remember that no one has been held accountable for the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Dora Alicia Sortos Recenos and her unborn child, Horacio Menjívar, or Esperanza Velasco. Simiarly, though several gang members were convicted for the disappearance, torture and murder of Marcelo Rivera, many in Cabañas believe that the police and Attorney General’s office ignored evidence that intellectual authors paid to have him killed. And the police have yet to make arrests for the murders of Darwin Serrano and Gerardo Abrego León.

Investigators tried to depoliticize these murders by attributing them to a drinking binge, as in the case of Marcelo Rivera, or a family feud, as with the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Horacio Menjívar, Esperanza Velasco, and Dora Alicia and her unborn child. Rodolfo Delgado, the prosecutor in charge of those investigations, has a history of depoliticizing murders. In 2004 he led the investigation of the murder of Gilberto Soto, the union activists killed in Usulután. Though the case had all the attributes of a political assassination, Delgado blamed the murder on Soto’s mother-in-law claiming it was a domestic issue. Delgado also depoliticized the murders of Francisco Antonio Manzanares and his wife Juana, who were killed in Suchitoto in 2007. Instead of investigating political motives for their deaths, Delgado investigated their daughter, Marina Manzanares, claiming that it was a domestic issue.

We don’t know who will be in charge of Juan Francisco’s murder, but the international community should join his family and friends, as well as local civil society leaders in calling for a thorough investigation, including the possibility that there are intellectual authors that paid to have him killed.

As long as impunity exists, murder, fear and intimidation will be a part of public debate in El Salvador, and we can expect more violence in the future.

Yesterday we posted a call to action, asking readers to call or write Attorney General Romeo Barahona and Minister of Security Manuel Melgar. Now it is more important than ever for you to get involved. If you’ve already emailed or called, we thank you and ask that you invite your friends and family to do the same. If you haven’t called yet, please do so by clicking here.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Juan Francisco’s family and friends, as well as all others who are risking their lives in the fight for justice in Cabañas.