El Salvador’s Security Strategy in 2016: Change or More Mano Dura?

by Sarah Kinosian and Angelika Albaladejo on February 29, 2016

As noted in our second post, El Salvador’s mounting security crisis has been met by a heavy-handed government response, which centers on sending the military and police into the streets to outgun the gangs and filling the country’s jails with even the lowest-ranking of alleged gang members. Beyond escalating violence and presenting extremely serious human rights concerns, this plan is simply not working. But, as 2016 unfolds, the government has a chance to set a new course and roll out an existing strategy to curb the violence.

PNC officers meet President Sanchez Ceren at ceremony presenting the police with arms and vehicles

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén meets with officers during a ceremony turning over weapons and vehicles to the National Civil Police (PNC). Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

Instead of addressing the drivers behind astronomical murder rates, current strategy aims to shoot and arrest the problem away –a well-worn security policy in Latin America known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” Throughout Latin America it has been well documented that this hardline approach is not only bad for human rights, but does not work in the long run. In neighboring Honduras, the Latin America Working Group and the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor documented in 2015 that as the list of abuses committed by militarized police forces continues to grow, “the central problem with this tactic becomes clearer: these soldiers are educated for war, not peace, and putting them on the streets turns each citizen into a potential enemy.” Studies in Mexico and Guatemala have also confirmed that relying on soldiers for citizen security for an extended period of time has not sustainably lowered rates of crime and violence. In the case of Guatemala, the United Nations has declared that greater use of the military in public security “has not resulted in visible improvements.”

In El Salvador, previous bouts of mano dura policies, including mass arrests, not only failed to bring down murder rates, but made matters worse. After being incarcerated in the early 2000s, gang members from local criminal groups were able to consolidate due to connections made while imprisoned. They then expanded their operations nationally, giving rise to the country’s current security landscape, in which two main gangs wield exceptional power over territory and murder rates have risen across the country. (See here for more on El Salvador’s gangs.)

Today’s policies might bring about similar adverse effects. As a former colonel in the military warned, “More repression of the gangs by the state only makes them more sophisticated. Applying the most severe penalties only emboldens the gangs because they are the product of social exclusion and inequality.” A commander in the Salvadoran police force warned of several other problems with the current security strategy:

You can’t kill a mosquito with an M-16. The gangs are a moving, growing target. Furthermore, by police being abusive, you’ve handed part of the community to the gang. You need intelligence to build cases, a strong judicial system and a working prison system. You also need to investigate financial crimes, but only the (now-former) Attorney General’s Office can do that, and right now, it won’t.

However, in the early months of 2016, the Salvadoran government appears to be continuing its hardline stance with the claim that the mano dura approach will work if given enough time. Vice President Óscar Ortiz recently said, “We’ve never had this level of prosecution and strategy deployed to strike and dismantle crime, like we do now. But it’s going to take some time.”

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An officer of the National Civil Police (PNC) stands in front of a poster depicting actors within El Salvador’s security strategy. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

In conjunction with continued deployments of police and soldiers, lawmakers are proposing hardline legal means to bring down the gangs. There is currently a gang registry law under debate in Congress, introduced by the right-wing ARENA party, which would create a list of alleged gang members and their collaborators. Lawmakers say this registry would make it easier for judges to apply harsher sentences to gang members under a law that has newly defined gang members as terrorists since August 2015. As noted in an earlier post, aside from the potential to escalate violent gang tactics and perpetuate an overall rhetoric of war, police do not often differentiate between gang members, collaborators and those who simply live in gang-controlled neighborhoods, leaving the door open for wrongful imprisonment and creeping mass incarceration rates.


See the rest of this post on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog. This article is the fifth in the Latin America Working Group and Security Assistance Monitor series ” El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out.”

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