Agents of the National Civil Police (PNC) have received training as part of the actions of the Secure El Salvador Plan.
Agents of the National Civil Police (PNC) have received training as part of the actions of the Secure El Salvador Plan.

While the National Security Council analyzes the strategies used in Colombia and Brazil to resolve El Salvador’s security crisis, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén is knocking on doors in search of funding to start its plan for a “Secure El Salvador.”

Many of the actions and strategies that the Salvadoran government will put in place under its Secure El Salvador Plan have not even been defined yet. But the members of the Council state the objective as “to improve the lives of Salvadorans by reducing the incidence of violence and organized crime and by creating a penal justice system that has citizens’ confidence.” The Plan will need to draw support from both international cooperation and the Salvadoran state’s own resources.

Official data indicate that the country needs to invest—in the short, medium, and long terms—a total of at least $2.1 billion in the plan. This is a little more than $400 million per year. The Plan places priority for investment on the fifty municipalities of the country with the highest rates of violence, and according to the Salvadorans’ expectations, they will see results within the first six months of the Plan’s implementation.

The first step has already been taken. When current president Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office in 2014, he ordered the creation of the Security Council. Made up of representatives from all sectors of the country, the Security Council has the responsibility to develop a plan to combat and eradicate gangs and to solve the problem of insecurity in the country.

Although it is not official, all indications are that the strategies utilized to contain drug trafficking and organized crime in the poorest neighborhoods of Medellin and in the slums of Rio de Janeiro are being adopted to combat the gangs in the Salvadoran streets.

Criticisms of the Model

2However, the measures have not been enthusiastically received by civil liberties organizations because of the high levels of repression with which they are associated. The

models have been criticized, questioned, and analyzed due to human rights violations.“It seems to us that this will not bring a positive solution for the construction of peace in the country,” affirmed Nelson Flores, Coordinator of the Security Program of the Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law (FESPAD).

“The consequences could be very serious. We’re already seeing them in the rising confrontations between gang members and police, and in the murders of many policemen,” he told the Americas Program. The official data of the National Civil Police (PNC) indicate that so far this year 5,015 people have been murdered in the country. Among the victims of the violence are 51 police. According to the assistant director of the Police, Howard Cotto, at one point in less than 24 hours four officers died in armed confrontations with gang members.

The numbers have been increasing all year. The first weekend of October closed with 38 homicides. Official PNC data for the month of September show 22 murders per day, double the figure reported for the same period in 2014.

The Medellin Model

But for those who support adapting these hardline strategies to the Secure El Salvador Plan, the examples and actions of the South American countries are ideal for implementing in El Salvador. Rafael Martínez, spokesman for the United Nations Program for Development (PNUD), underscores that the inclusion of young men who live in at-risk communities in violence prevention programs and investment in basic infrastructure in poor neighborhoods were the most important elements of the Medellin plan.

“Medellin was among the most violent cities in the world, and now it has become a model of security. With the strategy implemented in the city, a reduction of 93% in homicides was achieved, and this was due in good measure to the investment in communities that lived at risk or in vulnerability,” said Martínez.

In the case of the Colombian city, the local and central governments collaborated to execute a plan to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. To guarantee continuation of the plan after a change in government, this was made public policy.  The PNUD spokesman believes that El Salvador should maintain this level of coordination between the central and local governments to ensure the results of the strategies that will be introduced to eliminate gangs, reduce crimes and homicides, and increase the country’s security.

Murders recorded in El Salvador have reached alarming, record levels for the population.
Murders recorded in El Salvador have reached alarming, record levels for the population.

In an interview with the Americas Program, Martínez of the PNUD preferred not to speak about negative aspects of these strategies, the criticisms or claims of human-rights violations and repressive actions for which Colombian or Brazilian police or military personnel have been identified and investigated. He preferred to focus on the preventative part of the plans.

“Every country has regulated a human rights framework, and we believe that the actions that are taken to ensure security comply with constitutional guarantees of human rights.  We have no doubt that in El Salvador those constitutional rights will be guaranteed,” Martínez added.

The Security Council considers it crucial to first solve the problem of exclusion, social vulnerability, and cultural patterns to which the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods and communities are exposed, in order to achieve a reduction in crime and to avoid having more children and young people attracted to gangs. The actions taken in Medellin are proving to be extremely attractive to the Salvadoran authorities.

In contrast, according to FESPAD, in El Salvador human rights violations like those that are being investigated in the South American countries are already being documented.

“Colombia had different problems from those of El Salvador, and the model instituted in Brazil was characterized by zero tolerance. We’re already seeing both components in our country.  Already there are documented accusations of cases of executions. People are talking about the existence of extermination groups composed of gang members and about the violence with which the police carry out their operations,” the representative of FESPAD told the Americas Program.

The Plan’s High Cost  

The government endorsed the El Salvador Armed Forces' (FAES) support of the PNC in the tasks of patrolling the streets of the Salvadoran capital.
The government endorsed the El Salvador Armed Forces’ (FAES) support of the PNC in the tasks of patrolling the streets of the Salvadoran capital.

The investment necessary to carry out the plan is the responsibility of the Salvadoran State and private companies within the country. In addition, the international community has pledged to give the Salvadoran government a non-reimbursable proportion of the financing that comes to $350 million.

The government’s portion will be financed through loans that are already in process with the Inter-American Bank of Development, the Central American Bank of Economic Integration other new loans, and contributions from the private sector.

The U.S. government supports the new plan. Data from the Salvadoran government indicate that international cooperation, in particular aid from the United States, is at the highest level in the history of both countries in the last forty years. In addition to the funds that will be allotted for the Secure El Salvador Plan, the U.S. is investing $129 million through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), $11,177,000 through the Department of Agriculture, and $460,000,000 through the Milennium fund FOMILENIO.

The budget summary of the plan indicates that the Salvadoran state must invest $1.5 billion in violence prevention programs, including $500 million for the creation of jobs for 250,000 young people, another $600 million to ensure access to education for 300,000 children in the country, and $250 million more to expand public spaces, to create specialized units of attention for victims of violence, and to prevent the same in the fifty municipalities with the greatest incidence of violence.

As part of the reform of the judicial system, the country should invest $550,000 to revise the anti-gang laws and to devise a Special Law of Reintegration, which is in its analysis phase, and $55 million for programs of reintegration of gang members and other convicts who have served their sentences. An additional $720,000 will go to streamlining judicial processes to unclog the country’s jails, which currently are overpopulated by as much as 200%.

Among the points of the Plan underscored by members of the Security Council, investment in the security of the country’s penal system stands out. The Government needs to invest $20 million to install telephone signal blockers in the country’s jails to prevent gang members from ordering blackmail, homicides, and other crimes from inside prison.

In addition, the plan designates $6,000,000 for the creation of psycho-social attention and a special commission to search for persons who disappeared amid the violence. With this measure the State is trying to attend to the needs of families who have lost loved ones in situations of violence.

The Security Council also determined that the Salvadoran State should assign $500,000 for the creation of a special commission to investigate cases of corruption and infiltration of organized crime in official institutions, something similar to the CICIG in Guatemala. This point is still being debated.

For the government to guarantee its part of the investment to execute the Secure El Salvador Plan the Security Council proposed the creation of a special fund for the to finance security. Recently the president announced that these funds will come from a “special contribution” that will be levied from the country’s telephone companies. The Government made the decision to charge these companies based on their reported annual earnings of $1 billion.

However, the companies have said that the new charge will be reflected in the phone and internet bills of consumers, that is, the general population.

In a press conference last week President Sánchez Cerén denied that the special contribution was a new tax. He stated that it is important for the country to have sufficient resources to solve the problem of insecurity and to reduce the homicide rate, which is reaching an alarming level.

Government has also designated some special units of the PNC for security tasks in urban zones of San Salvador.
Government has also designated some special units of the PNC for security tasks in urban zones of San Salvador.

“Insecurity is a long-term problem and requires that we all contribute—it is about fairness and it is time to act—that we all ask ourselves ‘How can I help?’” said the president. He also explained that the charge will be differentiated.

Sánchez Cerén said that his government is open to proposals from other sectors so that the creation of the fund or special contribution can be democratic in form and not directly affect the population at large. According to the president’s secretary of communications Eugenio Chicas, the president’s proposal is transparent and necessary..

The nation’s general budget proposal states that the total of the money for the financing the security plan equals 1.7% of El Salvador’s Raw Domestic Product.

Carmen Rodríguez is a journalist in San Salvador, El Salvador, with five years’ experience in digital journalism. She specializes in the theme of Security and the Law, and joined the Americas Program in 2014.

Photos by John Sevigny and Carmen Rodríguez

Translated by Jonathan Tittler