2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

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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.

El Salvador Government, Organized Crime

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.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, Partnership for Growth

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.

Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, violence

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.

 

Mauricio Funes, Politics, violence

Funes Proposes Mandatory Military Service for “At-Risk Youth”

In a speech to the legislative assembly on June 1st, President Mauricio Funes provided commentary on his second year in office and proposed goals for improvement of the country’s state of security.  Notable among these proposals is Funes’ plan to create a system of obligatory military service for youth at risk of being recruited, or targeted by gangs.  If enacted, those deemed to be “at risk”, a denomination given at the discretion of the National Civil Police, would be required to complete a total of 2 years of military training without weapons (6 months), civil protection training,  rehabilitation, and vocational training aimed to shape them into productive citizens.  Funes believes that removing an estimated 5,000 at-risk members of society off of the streets and putting them through this program will resolve many of the country’s security issues caused by the prevalence and entrenchment of violent gangs in Salvadoran society.

 

While Funes’ introduction of the plan was only general, with details and logistics to be decided upon at a later date, some of the infrastructure necessary to implement it is already in place: the Salvadoran Constitution stipulates obligatory military service for citizens age 18-30, although this provision (designated as a “dead letter” rule) is not implemented   The caveat is that recruiting minors is of the essence to the success of the plan; FBI statistics show that gangs often target middle and high school students for recruitment, who range from approximately 12-18 years of age.  The program would theoretically need to work with at-risk youth before they join the gangs.  These statistics and the need to recruit minors may necessitate some legal revisions.  However, “youth” in El Salvador includes both minors and young adults, so it is unclear as to whether he plans on targeting minors, or if the participants would be over 18.

 

Funes’ plan, while controversial, does have proponents. Aída Santos, the former director of the National Public Security Council, in her interview with El Faro applauded Funes’ plan, citing that many adolescent members of gangs often feel like prisoners who cannot escape the constant threats and harassment they experience as gang members.  She believes that military training will provide them with this escape, as well as the sense of community and support they may have been seeking to find through gang membership.

 

Those opposed to Funes’ plan for obligatory military service for at risk youth argue that the program will only serve to exacerbate gang violence, as when adolescents are recruited into the program, it is highly likely they will already be associated with a gang.  This would effectively mean that the Salvadoran government would be training gang members and possibly providing them with resources and connections within the government.  There are already reports of the police and the military being corrupt and having connections with organized crime and gang activity; this could have the potential to intensify that problem.

 

Others opposed to the plan make claims that it will violate human rights.   Henry Fino of the Human Rights Institute at the Central American University (IDHUCA), also in an El Faro interview alleged that Funes’ proposed use of the army is unconstitutional, as the army is only meant to intervene in matters of public security in extreme cases.  He believes that the prevention of crime is not an extreme circumstance, nor does he even consider it to be a matter of public security.

 

In addition, as Funes’ plan to impose obligatory military service on youth continues to develop and does, in fact, include minors, the President must be careful not to violate his treaty obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC).   The CRC, which El Salvador signed and later ratified in July of 1990, provides rigid protection for the rights of minors, of the sort that Funes seeks to recruit.  El Salvador also ratified an optional protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflicts (A/RES/54/263) proposed in May of 2000 and signed and ratified by El Salvador by 2002.  Article 2 of the protocol is explicit when it states, “States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.”  The protocol in its third article also stipulates that any involvement of minors within the army must be “genuinely voluntary [and]…carried out with the informed consent of the person’s parents or legal guardians.”  If Funes continues to pursue the development of such plan, he must be aware of his obligations to the international community and the scrutiny he will come under if he violates his treaty obligations.

 

 

 

Corruption, Organized Crime, U.S. Relations, violence

Gun Trafficking in El Salvador- Hard to Track, Harder to Stop

One thing is certain about El Salvador – there is no shortage of firearms. Along with explosives, firearms are the leading cause of violent death in the Republic. The frequency of violent attacks, such as the December 8, 2010 hand grenade assault on the City Hall in San Salvador, and recent highly publicized investigations of gun traffickers, such as former Brigadier General Martínez-Guillén, calls for a closer examination of where the weapons come from and how criminals get them.
El Salvador has an extensive and easily accessible black market where buyers can find firearms and explosives of all shapes, sizes and origins, with little interference from law enforcement. The black market is comprised of individual dealers who operate out of their homes, cars, or even the backrooms of local businesses. Most often, black market weapons come from international sources in the US or Europe and are trafficked through Mexico down to El Salvador, or they are stolen out of Salvadoran military or police arsenals.
One of the biggest buyers of illegal weapons is El Salvador’s numerous security firms that protect private and government interests. Though they are legal entities, security firms prefer to purchase arms off the black market to avoid government scrutiny. Security companies have thrived over the years, making millions from Salvadorans who increasingly live in fear of being robbed or killed by the country’s notorious street gangs. These security firms also serve as a large source of weapons for thieves.  In the past two years alone, more than 1,700 weapons have been reported missing by private security companies.

Every year, Salvadorans purchase roughly $20 million in small weapons from the legal market, and approximately two to three times that amount from the black market. Though government officials tend to blame street gangs for the high murder rates that make El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world, political scientists and international experts have been questioning whether they could really accomplish the 10-15 murders per day they are blamed for. One of the points they make is that the youth involved in these gangs probably  cannot afford to purchase the high-grade weapons that are often used.

Many of the weapons used in crimes have been in El Salvador for decades, left over from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Despite the United Nations’ numerous efforts to disarm El Salvador following the conflict, a large percentage of wartime weapons continue to be bought and sold on the streets. Additionally, the Salvadoran military’s large arsenals are frequently stolen from, and their weapons end up being sold on the streets. Such weapons include M-16 AK-47 automatic rifles and hand grenades, such as the ones used in attack on San Salvador’s City Hall that killed two and caused $20,000 in damage. Last summer, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the issue of “1980s-era hand grenades, originally distributed to the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala, making their way onto the black market. Drug cartels have used them in firefights with police and military, and against rival gangs.

As the Wall Street Journal recently explained, large-scale gun traffickers are responsible for a negligible percentage of the weapons in illegal circulation.  Gun theft and small-scale distribution of stolen and found weapons are much more common and even harder to combat, especially since policymakers are focused on the very few large-scale distributors.  Current strategies like this one, and using the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms databases to trace U.S.-made guns used in crimes abroad, turns up fewer than 15 high-volume (more than 250 guns per year) gun trading networks each year.

The Ministry of Defense has uncovered numerous gang plots to steal or illegally buy small numbers of weapons from the armed forces or police.  Traffickers tend to prefer lower-volume sales or thefts, and guns that change hands up to four or five times, making the guns harder to trace, and the buyers harder to find.

The illicit weapons market in El Salvador and other Central American countries is closely tied to drug trafficking. Not only do traffickers use the same routes, but drug traffickers buy weapons to protect their shipments and territories. Most significantly, guns are the most common method of payment for drugs.  One explanation for this lies in the trade equity between the two products. Because guns and drugs are both high-value and low-density items, it is easier to trade based on bartering rather than using currency as a medium of exchange.  Since weapons (especially small, cheap guns) are more abundant than drugs, the higher-ups in the drug trade networks have begun to demand and subsequently gain access to newer, bigger, and more sophisticated weaponry, making the potential for violence even greater.

A recent story that has been widely reported by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Canadian Press, among others, highlights exactly how far this black market reaches.  Three missing M-16 rifles from military barracks sparked an investigation aided by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which has an office in El Salvador.  The investigation revealed that Brigadier General Hector Antonio Martínez-Guillén was illegally selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist organization.  Although the general resigned in May 2010, the DEA spent nearly a year on a sting operation that focused heavily on him.  In a meeting with an undercover agent, Martínez-Guillén agreed to illegally sell rifles after being warned by the agent that they would be used to kill American troops and consultants in Colombia if possible.  This agreement along with a later trip to the US to sell more than $1 million in cocaine in what he believed was a FARC drug deal, put the issue under US jurisdiction.  He was arrested upon arrival to the Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia and has been awaiting trial, which is scheduled for July 29.  Also accused of selling more than 20 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, he allegedly fully supported the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and Anti-American ideology.  He admitted selling “automatic rifles, ammunition and plastic explosives” to FARC members, but the investigation continues in El Salvador to unearth similar actors in illegal gun trades and narcotrafficking.  His guilty plea came as part of a plea deal in which the prosecution agreed to seek no more than 45 years for terrorism charges.

This case is just one of many that highlights exactly how far the illegal black market for weapons extends. The cooperation between the Salvadoran authorities and US agencies was instrumental in this case, and it shows one way this widespread and dangerous trade can be confronted.  The case is also a good sign, showing that El Salvador may be beginning to take seriously both illegal arms deals and military officials acting outside the law.