On October 19th, the high levels of fear and insecurity in El Salvador were on full display. A rumor spread through San Salvador via email and word of mouth that a street gang would conduct raids that night, and that everyone had to be off the street by 6 pm. By afternoon the streets of San Salvador were flooded with people trying to return home by the alleged curfew. Schools in Lourdes, San Martin, Colon and Apopa sent students home early and some businesses closed down in response to the threat.
Police Director, Carlos Ascencio asked residents not to give into a “collective panic over an unreal risk” and to have faith in the PNC and the armed forces in assuring their safety. However, as preventative measures, the armed forces launched helicopters in San Salvador and Illopango, and at 6 pm shut down the highway that connects Soyapango to San Salvador.
No one has yet confirmed that the gangs were the source of the threat, or that there was ever any increased danger. Some in San Salvador continue to believe it was a real threat made by the gangs in response to President Funes’ announcement that he would consider increasing the use of the military to fight gang violence throughout the country. Others believe that some in the opposition party used the scare tactic to destabilize the country and the ruling FMLN government.
Real or not, the response across Salvadoran society is demonstrative of the extreme levels of fear and insecurity among populations across the country. The PNC reports that so far in 2009, El Salvador has had 3,673 homicides, its highest murder rate in 5 years. In October alone, the PNC reports 431 homicides, approximately 16 a day. According to the United Nations Development Program, the violence has resulted in extreme insecurity. Forty percent of Salvadorans limit where they shop due to violence, while 37% do not use public recreational spaces. Another 14.2% of Salvadorans have moved to a different community, while 12.2% have closed a business out of fear of being robbed or killed.
As discussed on Tim’s Blog, President Funes recently announced that he would consider a proposal to integrate 50% of the Armed Forces into the PNC to combat the growing violence. While the plan received some initial support, many Salvadorans believe it to be too radical and fear it would lead to even greater levels of violence and repression. Funes, however, stated in an interview “… it was a courageous proposal” and left open the option of implementing it in the future.
Many civil society leaders have vocalized their disagreement with the plan. In addition to many others highlighted on Tim’s blog, representatives from the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) have spoken out against increasing the military’s role in domestic security. The primary argument against militarization of the police force is that the military will only contribute to the already high rates of violence. The military has been patrolling parts of El Salvador for many years, and point out that during this period, the violence has only risen. Some have also expressed a fear that it would give the military too much power in El Salvador, and possibly lead to an overthrow such as the one in Honduras this past summer.
Whether or not the military becomes involved, it is clear that the PNC has not been able or willing to provide security and curb gang activities, or instill a since of security among residents of San Salvador. Even if the October 19th threat was a hoax or false alarm, the city’s collective reaction is indicative of the great sense of fear that permeates all sectors.