Corruption, News Highlights, violence

Rumors Bring El Salvador to a Standstill

September 7th

Due to threats yesterday, public bus service and a large percentage of businesses ceased all activities today.  Threats were largely rumored, and the police captured six young men who were passing out flyers that expressed the threat on behalf of the M-18.

Buses that operated despite the threats in the morning were further threatened over the phone and by mid-day there was virtually no bus service nationwide.  Informal commercial sectors appeared abandoned, especially in the center of San Salvador, Soyapango, Ilopango, and San Miguel.

In a press conference this afternoon the PNC reported incidents of buses being taken hostage and burnt in Ahuachapan and in Chalchuapa.  Only the drivers and fare collectors were aboard and no one was killed.  A police vehicle was also attacked with a M-67 grenade, and PNC agents captured two suspects immediately after the incident.  A school in San Martin was also closed upon the discovery of a decapitated head in the surrounding area.  Carlos Ascencio, the National Police Chief, reminded the public that these events are not unlike what they see on any other day.

The PNC and Armed Forces mobilized 3,500 agents initially, and reported an increase of another 1,000 agents.  Helicopters were also observed circling through out the day.

Bus owners claim that the strike is indefinite.  The government plans to activate a contingency plan to provide public transportation if the buses do not resume service tomorrow, with military and police agents on every unit of transportation. They are urging the population to continue their routines as normal.

Manuel Melgar, the Minister of Public Security, reported that they consider these threats to be related to the recent capture of over 10 million dollars in cash un-earthed in barrels in Zacatecoluca.  Others have also attributed the threats to the passage of the new Anti-Gang law.

September 8th Update:

While the partial bus strike continues for the second day, the government continues to increase police and military presence.  The Minister of Public Security, Manuel Melgar, reported 3,500 PNC agents on patrol and the Minister of Defense, David Munguía Payés reported that another 2,000 army personnel have also been mobilized.  Many civilians are relying upon transportation provided by the military and PNC.

Yesterday, the legislative assembly approved the modification of article 347-A of the Penal Code, to increase jail time for persons caught providing arms to gang members.

The prison sub-director, Nelson Rauda, also confirmed ‘rebellions’ by inmates in six different jails.

September 9th Update

As discussed by the bus associations yesterday, today is the third and final day of the bus strikes.  The representative of FECOATRANS, Catalino Miranda, expected to see about 70% of the buses operating as normal by the end of the day.  The police and military trucks are also providing transportation.

The PNC also reported a drop in homicides over the past 3 days.  Nationally, nine homicides were reported on Tuesday (the same as the daily average so far this year), yesterday there were four, and so far today none have been reported.  Yesterday afternoon another M-67 grenade was thrown at a PNC check point in Mejicanos.  No one was injured.  The PNC and the press are highly publicizing the 50 arrests that have been made in the past three days, mostly for young men passing out flyers that threatened informal vendors and bus drivers.  The largest sweep captured 17 young men in Guacotecti, Cabañas for ‘illicit association, possession, and unlicensed weapons’.

Meanwhile, Douglas Moreno, the General Prison Director, has declared emergencies in five prison facilities.  Inmates have declared themselves in ‘rebellion’ and have increased inter-inmate violence and also towards guards.  30 people have been injured.  Moreno has called for the intervention of the UMO (the Order Maintenance Unit) and five days of cell confinement for the prisoners.

Supposed representatives of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs sent out a press release via e-mail yesterday afternoon.  The release apologized for the inconvenience, but that they are seeking a way to be heard by the current administration.  They demand a space for dialogue, a presidential veto of the new anti-gang law, and better conditions for the incarcerated.  Government officials either reserved comment or emphasized the importance of following through on the new legislation.  PNC director Carlos Ascencio said the law would specifically target gang leadership.

Corruption, violence

Part II – Recent threat of Curfew Displays High Levels of Fear and Insecurity in El Salvador

A couple days ago we posted an article on how violence and insecurity is gripping El Salvador, as exemplified on October 19, when a rumor of a gang uprising or riots was enough to impose a 6 pm curfew on San Salvador.   Violence in El Salvador is much higher than it has been in previous years. The Salvadoran police are reporting 3,673 homicides so far in 2009, a 40% increase over the same period last year.

If the allegations reported by Diario Co Latino are true, a few government officials could be responsible for stoking the violence and sense of insecurity in an attempt to destabilize the new Funes Administration.  One or more police investigators allege in a letter that PCN Congressman Antonio Almendáriz has been working with police officials, government prosecutors, and judges in San Salvador to weaken the legal system and thereby allow the violence to continue.  According to the plot, the new administration, which took office in June of this year, would appear as though they are unable to ensure security, and weaken their high-level of support with the Salvadoran people.

The police investigators allege that four judges of the peace had united and declared that they were “against the system.”  This was a particular problem for the police investigators who sought support from the judges in arresting those responsible for spreading the rumors of the supposed gang attack on October 19.  The police managed to find other judges to work with and finally arrested twelve suspects who were in possession of hand grenades, firearms, and police uniforms. When in custody, the suspects said that a police official in Apopa, a municipality north of San Salvador known for its high levels of gang activity, gave them the arms and uniforms. The same police chief has strong ties to the four judges who declared themselves “against the system.”  It remains unclear whether there was an actual gang uprising planned, or if it was a scare tactic that the Congressman, police, and judges had come up with.

In a related story, the Associated Press, El Faro, Tim’s Blog, and others are reporting that the Funes administration has approved a plan to increase the military’s role in domestic security.  For many years, the military has provided 1300 soldiers to help police patrol high crime areas.  The Funes’ administration did not provide a specific number, but thousands more soldiers will join police in patrolling dangerous areas, searching for persons of interest, increasing security at prisons and youth rehabilitation centers, and other such tasks.  The extra troops will support police in five of El Salvador’s departments – San Salvador, Sonsonate, La Libertad, Santa Ana, and San Miguel.

Since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, the police are responsible for ensuring public security.  According to the Constitution, the executive may only use the military for domestic security in extraordinary circumstances, and only with the approval of the Legislative Assembly.  The plan will begin Friday, November 6, and in 180 days the administration will submit a report to the Legislative Assembly discussing the benefits of the program, and recommend whether or not the military ought to continue supporting the police.

Though the majority of those living in San Salvador support the use of military in domestic security, many civil society organizations and the Church have expressed concerns that the use of military will result in more violence and human rights abuses (Tim’s Blog has posted several of their statements) .

Their concerns are valid and ought to be carefully considered by the Funes Administration, Legislative Assembly, and people of El Salvador. Force is not a long-term solution to gang violence, as we learned with Tony Saca’s “super mano duro.”  Gang violence is deeply rooted in economic and social inequalities that have plagued the country for generations. Real solutions require a long-term commitment to sustainable development that benefits all sectors of Salvadoran society.  Such development will be impossible until stability and security is restored – if the military can help out while the police improve their ability to enforce the law, the Funes Administration may be justified in deploying them.

Perhaps more importantly, sustainable development will be impossible until public servants put an end to the kind of partisanship that leads some to undermine the security and wellbeing of the people they are supposed to serve, in order to further their own cause.