Security policies

Security policies and the phenomenon of maras in El Salvador

Written by: Jaime Martínez Ventura. Lawyer. Master in Economic Criminal Law. Member of the Center for Criminal Studies of El Salvador, CEPES. Former Director General of the National Academy of Public Security.

#ElSalvador #Maras #Gangs #SecurityPolicies

So far this century, although various governments have offered to implement integrated public security policies against maras or gangs, i.e. a systematic combination of prevention, institutional strengthening, social reinsertion and repression, in practice, at different times, one of these approaches has prevailed: exacerbated punishment (mano dura plans), selective punishment (prosecution, investigation and police intelligence) and informal agreements between gangs, known as truces, to reduce homicides, which, while not the only indicator of violence, are a fundamental one. The rates mentioned here, although they may have some under-reporting or shortcomings, are data agreed upon by a tripartite roundtable comprising the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the police and the Institute of Forensic Medicine, a dependency of the judiciary.  

Between 2003 and 2009, the exacerbated punishment materialised in the successive «anti-gang laws» and the «Mano Dura» and «Súper Mano Dura» (heavy-handed) plans, which basically consisted of massive and indiscriminate arrests of gang members or associates, without sufficient legal support to ensure successful prosecutions. Above all, the media effect was sought to demonstrate the greatest possible harshness against these groups, to criminalise mere membership, to increase the penalties for the crimes attributed to them and to toughen prison conditions.

This period marked three milestones in the development of the maras: the homicide rate rose to an average of 59 per 100,000 inhabitants, up from 42 before. While not all homicides are attributed to the maras, they are responsible for between 60 and 70 per cent; as a result of constant police raids that prevented gang members from being present in public places where they solicited economic «collaborations» from the population, they had the need and the opportunity to engage in extortion, which eventually became the basis of their criminal economy; the gang leaders or recognised gang members were forced to move to other places where they created new structures, thus initiating an unprecedented expansion of this phenomenon that today is found in almost the entire national land.  

Between June 2009 and May 2014, a «leftist» government was established for the first time in El Salvador. This administration had two periods. In the first, the aim was to break with the «heavy-handed» paradigm, so that instead of mass arrests, police investigations were strengthened with the aim of identifying, pursuing and arresting leaders or relevant members of criminal structures in order to weaken their capacity to command. At the same time, efforts were made to implement social inclusion measures in communities with a strong gang presence. In the first year, acceptable achievements were obtained, since the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants, which at the end of 2009 was 71, was reduced to 64.8 in 2010.

In November 2011, the second period began, when the main leadership of the security cabinet was replaced by military officers. Contrary to expectations, instead of increasing repression, between 2012 and 2013 a truce was implemented between the gangs, unofficially brokered by the then security minister through various «mediators», consisting of an agreement between the two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, to cease attacks against each other in exchange for prison benefits. Subsequently, information emerged indicating that economic benefits were also provided to some gang leaders, which is currently under judicial investigation.

As a result, the homicide rate, which in 2011 had been 70.1, fell to 41.1 and 39.7 in 2012 and 2013, respectively ( institutions/capres/doc um ents/2560 90/download). However, this truce is credited with having opened up or strengthened the gangs’ political protagonism by turning them into an electoral actor. In addition, extortion continued and forced disappearances and displacements of people in gang-controlled areas increased. The term «forced disappearance» used in this paper does not refer to the crime defined in the Criminal Code, which can only be committed by officials or agents of authority, but to a practice that is materially a forced disappearance attributed to the gangs, which does not rule out the possibility that some disappearances have been carried out by state agents.

Between June 2014 and May 2019, public security policy was in the hands of the second leftist government. The truce that took place in the previous period was publicly sullied, and the new government decided to break it, despite the fact that, according to journalistic investigations and subsequent judicial enquiries, the two political parties that contested the presidency of the republic in 2014 forged agreements with the maras not only to allow them to carry out their election campaigns in «their territories», but also to obtain the votes of their members, family members and close associates, who together amounted number 300,000 people, according to various sources. (https://www.

As a result of the breakdown of alleged negotiations before the elections, the gangs increased their criminal violence, raising the homicide rate to 103 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, including the murder of several dozen police, military, security personnel and their families. At the end of January 2016, the president of the republic changed the security cabinet to be composed almost entirely of police officers.

During this period, dialogue with the gangs continued to be broken off and security policy focused on selective punishment in three ways: one, police persecution through the formation of special police units for the detection, pursuit and capture of criminal structures, which led to an increase in armed confrontations and victims on both sides; two, restructuring and integration of state, police, military and penitentiary intelligence to support police investigations for the identification and selective capture of gang leaders; three, implementation of the so-called «Extraordinary Measures» in penitentiary centres, consisting of legal reforms that facilitated the isolation of gang leaders, restrictions on family visits, the elimination of intimate visits and the limitation of other rights or benefits.

A fourth axis was social prevention, through the creation of the Vice-Ministry of Prevention and the formation of the National Council for Coexistence and Citizen Security, a broad forum led by the President of the Republic and senior officials of his social and security cabinet, with the participation of representatives of various social sectors and the accompaniment of international cooperation agencies such as the UNDP, the European Union and the OAS, from which the Plan El Salvador Seguro (PESS) was derived, a broad and ambitious project with few results due to the lack of funding in its budget, which was 2.2 billion dollars. 

Despite its limitations in social prevention, the restrictions on the human rights of the population deprived of liberty and the deaths resulting from the increase in armed clashes, at the beginning of this cycle, between security forces and gangs, a continuous and sustained reduction in lethal violence was achieved during this period, including armed confrontations, so that in 2016 the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 81, in 2017 it fell to 60.2 and in 2018 it closed with 50.4, i.e. a total reduction of 50% in three years. (  ).

The above overview demonstrates that the exacerbated punitive plans against gangs had the unintended effect of increasing the power and violence of these organisations rather than reducing them. Selective punishment achieved a significant reduction in homicides, albeit at a high cost of violence and human rights violations. Although the truce served to reduce homicides, since it was forged outside of the law, in secrecy and without official recognition, it has been widely repudiated by the population, and has left the population with the suspicion that it has led to an increase in other crimes such as disappearances and forced displacements, as well as the strengthening of the gangs as political actors. 

This is the situation of almost 30 years of security policies inherited by the new government that began in June 2019, ending the de facto bipartisanship that had prevailed since 1989. The current president, although he comes from the leftist party that governed for the previous 10 years, has completely broken with it, has rejected any ideological identity and has burst in with a government with shades of pragmatism, technological modernism, breaking with rituals and legal formalisms that make him look novel, bold and efficient, although there is a worrying tendency towards the breakdown of legality and the concentration of power.

However, the current government has achieved the largest reduction in homicides in the country’s history. While this decline had begun under the previous government, the current administration managed to widen and sustain it for almost two years. 2019 closed with a rate of 35.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest recorded since the 1980s. In 2020 the decrease was even greater, ending with «only» 1,322 homicides, which for a population of 6.7 million equates to a rate of 19.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is commendable, despite the fact that this last year was affected by the mandatory quarantine imposed between March and August.

The government attributes this reduction to the success of the so-called «Territorial Control Plan», the full content of which has not been publicly disclosed, but according to official statements it has several phases, four of which have already begun and consist of strengthening prison control, increasing police and military presence, bringing basic services to communities, and enhancing the technical, logistical and technological capacity of the police and army, with the main objective of regaining state control in gang-dominated areas.

However, several studies, analyses, journalistic reports and informed opinions cast doubt on this official version, attributing the drop in homicides to a decision by the gangs, either unilaterally or as a result of an informal agreement with government representatives, although without specifying the conditions of this supposed agreement. ( ;https: // )

Among the factors that call into question the success of the «Territorial Control Plan», the following are noted that the reduction had begun under the previous government, that the prison control measures imposed by the current government had no impact on this downward trend; the drop in homicides is evident not only in the municipalities included in the plan but also in many others that are excluded, and that in some cities included in the plan, homicides have increased. (https://es. analisis/ disminucion-homicidios-el-salvador-pandillas/ )   

It is also reported that, in contrast to the previous government, police operations and thus armed confrontations with gangs have decreased under the current government. There have been reports from internal police sources that there have been orders to shoot less during operations. Another indicator is that the number of extortions between 2019 and so far in 2021 has practically remained the same as in previous years, despite the reduction recorded in 2020 during the quarantine period. In addition, there are testimonies and statements from the inhabitants of the places where gang members live, who affirm that gang members are still present in the communities. ( https://www. crisis group. org/es/ latin-america-caribbean/ central-america/ el-salvador/ 81-miracle-or-mirage-gangs-and-plunging-violence-el-salvador)

Regardless of the causes of the reduction in homicides, and despite the fact that extortion and forced disappearances continue, this is unquestionably a historic achievement. However, past experience shows that certain strategies, such as executions attributed to extermination groups or truces forged behind the population’s back and outside the law, are despicable and counterproductive in the medium term. In addition, the drop in homicides can be broken at the will of criminal structures, as happened in April last year when MS-13 increased homicides, leaving a toll of more than 80 in five days.

Past negative experiences are an advantage for the current government in the sense that, by being aware of them, it can take necessary precautions to avoid reversing the achievements made. Another advantage of the current administration is the enormous political capital it possesses, expressed in the support for the president of the republic of approximately 90 per cent of the population, the control of the official party’s qualified majority in the Legislative Assembly and the dominance of most local governments. With this wealth, whatever measures have brought about this historic reduction in homicidal violence, the government has time to deepen, adapt and adjust them to the standards of any public policy in a democratic society, including transparency, access to public information, accountability and the greatest possible citizen participation.

In El Salvador, over the past 20 years, it has been shown that when security policies against gangs have emphasised a mano dura approach, the results have been counterproductive, generating an increase in criminal violence and fuelling the expansion of these structures. When the emphasis has been on formal or informal agreements between gangs and/or between gangs and the government, homicides have been drastically reduced. However, such agreements or truces have also had unintended consequences, such as the strengthening of gangs as political actors and hidden negotiations that could conceal the granting of improper benefits.  

Both strategies applied unilaterally leave the structural causes of crime, such as poverty and social exclusion, untouched. Consequently, only the effective application of integrated policy strategies, with an emphasis on social prevention, which could include transparent and legal understandings with gangs, could guarantee sustained reductions in homicidal violence and, based on this, lead to the cessation of other criminal activities such as extortion, disappearances and, probably, the demobilisation, disarmament and integration of the members of these criminal structures. The current government has the opportunity to finally implement such an integrated policy.

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