El Salvador Government

Funes Appoints a New Minister of Justice and Security, and New Director of PNC

Yesterday President Funes announced he has appointed Ricardo Perdomo to be the new Minister of Justice and Security and Rigoberto Pleités as the new director of the National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish). He also announced that Francisco Salinas will now head the State Intelligence Organization (OIE, in Spanish), and that David Munguía Payés, his former Minister of Justice and Security, as his security adviser.

The changes come after the Constitutional Court’s recent decision that Munguía Payés (former Minister of Justice Security) and Francisco Salinas (former Director of the PNC) were ineligible for their posts due to their military careers.

Justice and Security Minister Perdomo is an economist and political scientist, and in January 2012 President Funes appointed him as the Director of the OIE. These are not Perdomo’s first government positions. He held several posts in the Durarte Administration (1984-1989) including the President’s Private Secretary, President of ANDA, Minister of Economics, and the President of the Elections Council.

Before being assigned as the new Director of the PNC, Rigoberto Pleités was the Director General of Migration and Foreigners, a post he accepted in January 2012. Director Pleités is an electrical engineer and has a master’s degree in business administration. He has also served as the Director of Human Development at the Ministry of Education.

During his announcement, President Funes said that Perdomo “ought to continue with the work begun to reduce crime in the country over the last ten months of his administration.” He similarly said that as the new director of police, Pleités “should continue the assignment of modernizing the police force with an emphasis on reducing the amount of extortion and organized crime, particularly related to drug trafficking.

President Funes also said that while he did not agree with the Constitutional Court’s decision that Payés and Salinas were disqualified from holding their positions due to their affiliation with the military, it was his obligation to comply with the order.

 

 

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El Salvador Government, violence

El Salvador Marks 100 Days of the Gang Truce and 2nd Anniversary of the Mejicanos Bus Burning

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, June 19th and 20th, marked two important dates in El Salvador’s long struggle for peace and security. Tuesday celebrated 100 days since the country’s two primary gangs signed a truce that has resulted in a rather dramatic decrease in violence. Wednesday was the second anniversary of the bus burning in Mejicanos that killed 17 people. The horrific act, which government officials and the public blamed on members of the 18th Street gang, shocked the national conscious and arguably led to the truce that was celebrated yesterday. How government officials, civil society, and the private sector respond in the coming days and weeks will determine whether this is a turning point in the country’s history or another lost opportunity.

The Bus Burning

The morning of June 20th, 2010, an armed group stopped a small bus in Mejicanos, an urban area on the outskirts of San Salvador, doused it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. In all, seventeen people were killed and many others maimed and injured.

In response to the event, President Funes introduced an anti-gang bill that made it illegal to belong to a gang, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The law was the same kind of “mano duro” (heavy handed) law that previous administrations had employed, albeit unsuccessfully, to combat gang violence. It was also the exact kind of law that President Funes had campaigned against.

The gangs responded to the proposed legislation by imposing a nation-wide curfew and 72-hour bus stoppage, threatening to kill anyone who defied the mandate. Towards the end of the 72-hour period, gang leaders held press conferences and issued statements calling for policies of inclusion and greater opportunities for youth, and dialogue with government officials about how to end the violence. They also called on the government to improve the inhumane prison conditions and offer opportunities for personal development. The administration ignored their demands and request for dialogue, and that week President Funes signed the new anti-gang bill into law.

The curfew, 72-hour bus stoppage, and press communications were the first times that leaders from the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs worked together. Until that point, the gangs had been mortal enemies and such collaboration had not been an option. Their unity was an indication of the urgency and conviction behind their words and actions.

The bus burning and curfew left the government and Salvadoran people in no mood for talking. Government officials said publicly they would not be blackmailed into negotiating with gangs that had terrorized the population. Even if administration officials had desired to negotiate with the gangs, doing so in the fall of 2010 would have had severe political consequences. Hardliners from the conservative parties would have criticized them for being weak and unable to protect the Salvadoran people.

The Truce

Something happened, however, and this past March news broke that the leaders of MS-13 and two factions of the 18th Street gangs had signed a truce that has successfully reduced El Salvador’s murder rate, which has been among the highest in the world. Salvadorans welcome the reduction in violence but fear that it is unsustainable if the government and other stakeholders fail to address the social and economic exclusion that gave rise to the violence in the first place.

The two people credited with facilitating the negotiations between the gangs were Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres and former FMLN legislator Raul Mijango. Government officials initially denied involvement in the truce but ex-military General and Minister of Justice and Public Security Munguía Payés recently acknowledged that the truce was “part of his strategy” to address the gang problem. Just before news of the truce broke, 30 incarcerated gang leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lower security facilities, and were allowed more visitations along with other rights. These concessions were consistent with those laid out by gang leaders in 2010.

Just how much the murder rate has decreased varies depending on who is reporting it. Government officials often use shorthand and simply say that the daily average number of homicides has fallen from 14 to 6 – that would be a 57% decrease. InSight Crime reported the government’s actual numbers, which put the overall drop from March to May at 42%. The actual totals they use are:

March 2011/2012 – 377/255 (decrease of 32%)

April 2011/2012 – 340/156 (decrease of 54%)

May 2011/2012 – 368/172 (decrease of 53%)

Total March-May 2011/2012 -1085/583 (decrease 0f 42%)

The InSight Crime article points out,

“The National Police statistics on homicides have differed from those kept by the Public Forensic Institute (Medicina Legal), which has released slightly higher murder counts for each month.”

Calculating the homicide rate and the success of the truce has been somewhat complicated by reports that the rate of disappearances has risen, which would seem to indicate that gang members are just disposing of their victims. According to El Faro, these reports seem somewhat unfounded. As of June 10, the police have recorded 677 disappearances so far in 2012. Minister Munguía Payes insists that this is in line with previous years. Medicina Legal reports a much higher number of disappearances, 877 in just the first four months of 2012. There were more disappearances in the first two months of the year before the truce was signed than the second two months. Based on these numbers it is difficult to even speculate that murder victims are being buried and that the homicide rate is higher than reported.

While Salvadorans welcome the decrease in violence, many remain skeptical of its long-term sustainability. Some question whether the gang leaders were sincere in signing the truce and that perhaps other motives exist. Others are concerned that the imprisoned leaders who signed the truce do not have enough control over the extensive network of ‘cliques’ that make up their gangs to enforce it. One bus driver said recently that in his line of work he has gotten to know many gang members – he fears the kids on the street will only listen to gang leaders for so long until they start killing their rivals again. He fears that if they break the truce, the violence will be more extreme than ever. It remains to be seen whether this skepticism is warranted.

A more realistic concern about the sustainability of the truce is that it does little to address the root-cause of the violence –  social and economic exclusion. This is an issue that gang leaders mentioned back in 2010 and have stressed over the past 100 days. Salvadoran youth lack appropriate opportunities for education and work, and often have no options but to join gangs.  The truce is not the solution – it’s a break in the violence so the various stakeholders can work out a long-term solution.

The gangs seem serious about working out a long-term solution. In a statement released this week, gang leaders said they are ready to start negotiating a permanent peace treaty that would hopefully end the violence for good. According to an AP report, Oscar Armando Reyes, a leader of the 18th Street gang, said,

“We want to reach a definitive cease fire to end all the criminal acts of the gangs. But we have to reach agreements, because we have to survive. There was talk of jobs plans, but we haven’t gotten any answers, and it is time for the government to listen to us.”

A few weeks ago, President Funes announced that he had an agreement with members of the private sector that they would hire youth who had been involved in gangs in order to support their reintegration into society. The same day that Funes announced the private sector agreement, gang leaders announced that they would stop recruiting new members in schools and consider ending extortions in the near future. It is unclear that the government and private sector have taken more affirmative steps to work on long-term solutions.

Some civil society leaders have expressed support for the gangs recently and called on the greater Salvadoran community to support their reintegration. Mario Vega, head pastor at Elim Christian Mission, recently stated,

“I believe that the leaders of the gangs are earnestly involved in this process, because giving one’s word implies the highest code of respect, and they don’t speak just to speak; however, they could change a commitment at any moment if they feel they are not being listened to or respected.”

Rodrigo Bolaños, the general manager of the Salvadoran Factory League of Central America that employs former gang youth, recently said gangs are a product of Salvadoran society, and therefore the responsibility of Salvadoran society.

“The kids in the gangs weren’t born in Korea… they are from here. This is a problem of our own. They are our Salvadoran brothers. Society has to understand why all this began, and there has to be some capacity to forgive.”

Raúl Mijango, who helped facilitate the truce, recently said

“We’ve got to be frank – the gangs are waiting for a response from Salvadoran society and the state, but the most difficult part will be for society to stop looking to the past, accumulating hatred and resentment.”

While the truce is extremely important to achieving peace in El Salvador, it is not THE final solution. For too long the government and media have made young gang members, tattoos and all, the scary face of violence in El Salvador. The police, attorney general’s office, other government agencies, and media have been too quick to attribute political murders, international organized crime, femicide, and so many other crimes to gangs – neighborhood kids fighting their peers.

Job programs and reintegrating gang members into society will be an important first step, but at some point Salvadorans will also have to tackle the organized criminals that use all levels of government to facilitate their drug trafficking and money laundering. They will also have to get over the machismo culture that has led to El Salvador being the world leader in femicide.

Over the past couple of years, the gangs have taken steps to end the violence they are responsible for. Hopefully, the government, civil society, and private sector will do their part.

Thanks to our good friend Colette Hellenkamp for her invaluable contributions to this article.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, violence

A New Approach to Youth Violence?

The number of students murdered in El Salvador more than doubled from 52 students in 2010 to 126 in 2011. In January 2011, even before the increase of violence in Salvadoran schools, the Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Civil Police (PNC) began developing a plan that would, in-part, put police patrols in the schools most affected by gang violence. In late January 2012, Sub-director of the PNC, Manuel Ramírez Landaverde, announced they would begin implementing the new programs for the 2012 school year, with the goal of reducing student violence and the murder rate.

One of the new programs is “Discipline through Sports,” which aims to bridge the divide between students and police officers. According to an expert on Salvadoran youth and gangs, there is a very common belief in El Salvador that the police are “corrupt to its core.” The source, which requested anonymity, said that many communities, rural and urban, believe the PNC has “been infiltrated by gangs, by organized crime, by narco-trafficking, and you name it.” The source also said, “police brutality is common,” and they also “extort kids in the gangs so they don’t beat them or their families, or investigate them.”

It is unclear what the new program, which police officials tout as both preventative and protective, will look like, but the goal seems to be to get police officers active in coaching or even playing sports with the kids. Through direct interactions with students, the PNC hopes to be more than just a police presence. Landaverde said that the program “will allow us to detect, before any warning or situation, a problem developing within any group of students.”

While it is important that the police recognize the divide between the police and youth, Discipline through Sports seems to do little  to address the reason for the divide – the perception that the police are the actual “bad guys.” Instead of addressing accusations of abuse and corruption, police officials seem more interested in gathering information and detecting issues early, rather than strengthening their relationships with youth.

The PNC and MINED have identified 300 schools as “high risk,” 166 of which are also considered the “most vulnerable.” The program will assign 160 officers to work on sports programs in the 300 schools, which is just over 1 officer for every 2 high-risk schools. The 160 officers will join another 400 officers who are patrolling the 166 schools that are already marked as the most vulnerable. Sub-director Landaverde also said that thousands of other personnel would continue supporting schools around the country with “patrols, control, education, and road security, regulating vehicle traffic around the schools.”

The program is part of the PNC’s effort to reduce El Salvador’s extremely high murder rate (66 per 100,000, second highest in the world). Police officials recently said they would reduce the murder rate by 30% in 2012, in part by reducing the levels of violence among youth. According to David Munguía Payés, a retired General who is now the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and other government officials, violence perpetrated by youth gangs accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s 4,223 murders in 2011. El Salvador’s Government Forensics Institute, former PNC officials, and several civil society organizations, however, assert that youth gangs account for only 10-20% of the nation’s murders. They attribute the majority of El Salvador’s violence to international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and people, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Though the 126 student victims only account for 3% of the murder in 2011, the PNC is focusing on schools because they believe them to be recruiting centers for the gangs. They hope that by increasing the police presence, active gang members will no longer have the access that they once did, and youth will focus more on their studies instead of turning to gangs and violence.

The focus on murdered students may also be a good public relations move for the PNC and Funes Administration. Highlighting the tragic murders of these students,  the PNC and other officials are able to continue casting youth gangs as the heinous enemy and justify the same kind of draconian security plans implemented in the past (Mano Duro, 2003 and Super Mano Duro, 2004 – both laws were found to be unconstitutional by El Salvador’s Supreme Court). In just the past month, the Funes Administration has militarized the country’s domestic security institutions in a manner not seen since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

In 2011, the Funes Administration proposed to steer youth away from gangs by requiring “at risk” youth ages 16-18 to participate in a military training program. Activists and experts rejected the plan arguing that the youth would emerge from the program as skilled laborers for the gangs and drug traffickers. Instead of putting youth into a military program, the PNC’s latest idea puts the police into the schools.

Teachers, organizations and other experts, however, have criticized the PNC’s proposal fearing that it will only lead to more police brutality. A spokesperson for Bases Magisteriales, a teacher’s union, shared a recent story from the Joaquín Rodenzo school in downtown San Salvador as an example. He said that police would hit students and even put their service weapons to the student’s heads. The Bases Magisteriales spokesperson said that schools simply don’t have the resources to support the PNC presence and protect the rights of the students.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice President and Minister of Education, signed off on Dicipline through Sports on January 30, 2012, and Security Minister David Munguía Payés hopes to see the plan in place within two months. Whether putting police officers into school sports programs and patrolling the hallways is something new that will deter involvement in gang activities or just another heavy-handed security measure that will result in more abuse remains to be seen. But with such uncertainty about who is responsible for the violence and the motive behind the crimes, there is plenty of reason to doubt the plan will help reduce El Salvador’s murder rate by the 30% officials are hoping for.

El Salvador Government

6300 More Salvadoran Soldiers

During the first two and a half years of the Funes Administration, the military has grown by 6300 soldiers, a 57% increase, to a total of 17,000.

ElFaro.net reports that in recent years the Funes Administration has approved three proposals from the Ministry of Defense that in part increased the number of soldiers at a cost of $25 million a year.

The additional troops are part of a $29.4 million increase in military spending for 2012, putting the entire defense budget at more than $144 million. This is the largest growth the military has experienced since the 1992 Peace Accords ended 12 years of civil war.

News of the increase comes weeks after President Funes named General David Munguía Payés as Minister of Public Security. Minister Munguía Payés, who until recently served as the Minister of Defense, says that the troop increases are in response to the growing role the military is taking in domestic public security issues.

Since taking office, President Funes has deployed three battalions to address domestic security. One battalion is charged with guarding the perimeters of Salvadoran jails, while two others are patrolling El Salvador’s boarder with Guatemala and Honduras, and urban neighborhoods with high rates of violence. Minister Munguía Payés says the increase is necessary to help the police combat youth gangs in El Salvador.

When President Funes first announced plans to deploy soldiers for domestic security issues, opponents said that in addition to being a constitutional violation, Salvadorans would be exposed to human rights violations. In February 2011, 14 months after the first troops hit the streets the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights reported that they had received 158 complaints of human rights violations by soldiers patrolling Salvadoran streets. One hundred and twenty of the complaints were made against soldiers patrolling in different parts of the country. Another 38 were made against soldiers providing security in the Salvadoran prisons. We reported on one of the complaints in January, when soldiers killed two Salvadorans they accused of smuggling lumber from Honduras to El Salvador.

The El Faro article highlights the paradox that the increase of soldiers and defense spending was undertaken by a President elected from the FMLN, the political party born out of the leftist militancy that spent 12 years fighting the military.

President Funes’ selection of a former military leader to lead the Ministry of Security was also controversial – a first since the end of the war. Some have called the appointment unconstitutional and a representation of the re-militarization of El Salvador. FMLN officials denounced the appointment stating that it “goes against the peace accords,” which de-militarized public security.

President Funes responded, “no one with good intentions should think that this appointment might imply a militarization of security, nor that it means a step backward in terms of the spirit of the peace accords.”

 

El Salvador Government, Politics

Defense Minister David Munguía Payés

Yesterday afternoon, President Funes appointed Minister of National Defense David Munguía Payés as Minister of Justice and Security. It is the first time since El Salvador ended twelve years of civil war that a military official has been in charge of El Salvador’s domestic security. Minister Munguía Payés is replacing former Minister Manuel Melgar who resigned just over two weeks ago.

As Minister of Defense, Munguía Payés oversaw the deployment of troops in San Salvador neighborhoods controlled by El Salvador’s notorious gangs. He made the news earlier in 2011 when he warned that Mexican drug cartels were building a presence in the region and targeting Central American police and military bases as a source for weapons.

When President Funes made the announcement yesterday, he said he “asked for concrete results in the fight against crime.” In his first statement as the new Minister, Munguía Payes said that he “is convinced that has not come to work miracles, but he is committed to taking concrete steps.” He also said that he was committed to respecting the Constitution and human rights, and managing public security as a civilian as mandated by the Peace Accords.

According to ElFaro.net, during the ceremony to swear in the new Minister of Security, President Funes made a tacit admission that the government had not made significant advances in combating murders in the past 2 ½ years.

The FMLN objected to appointing Minister Munguía Payés because of his military background. They argue that his appointment is a step backwards in El Salvador’s democracy, and a violation of the Peace Accords. Former leftist guerillas who were integrated into the National Civil Police also expressed concern that Munguía Payés’ appointment would result be detrimental, but President Funes assured them that there would be no structural changes within the police force.

According to an article on netorivas.net, the FMLN has had a good relationship with Munguía Payés in the past. The former colonel had a falling out of sorts with ARENA politicians when Presidents Calderon Sol and Francisco Flores refused to promote him to General. In 2003, Sanchez Ceren, who was then the head of the FMLN party, announced that Munguia Payes was joining the FMLN, and would serve as an advisor on national security issues. One of the reasons for bringing him on was to bring other old soldiers into the FMLN fold. If the FMLN had won the 2004 Presidential elections, Munguía Payés would have likely been appointed Minister of Defense. His appointment is another reminder that the Funes Administration and the FMLN party are not working as closely together as they might be.