El Salvador: President Funes Seeks Military Help To Curb Violent Crime

January 31, 2010
As El Salvador’s notoriously high murder rate continues to soar, the country’s new President Mauricio Funes of the leftist Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) is turning to an unlikely ally–the armed forces–to help stem the bloodshed.
In 2008, the rampant violence–-much of it blamed on the country’s numerous street gangs–took the lives of nearly 3,200 Salvadorans, a staggering number for a country whose total population is roughly equivalent to that of metropolitan Houston, Texas (5.7 million). This year the death toll is higher still.
Since taking office on June 1(see NotiCen, 2009-06-04), Funes, a former TV journalist, has seen an upsurge in homicides that hit a gory peak Oct. 18, the president’s 50th birthday, when a staggering 43 people were murdered. El Salvador’s Policia Nacional Civil (PNC) said it was the single bloodiest day of the past decade. Authorities reported 17 homicides the day before, bringing the yearly total, as of Oct. 18, to 3,492, 1,008 more than at the same point last year.
Describing the violence as a “monster,” Funes later that week called on Salvadorans to join forces. “This is a call for the nation as a whole, not just the president,” he said during a speech that accompanied the Oct. 20 release of a new UN Development Programme (UNDP) report on violence in the region.
More specifically, the president used the address to announce a major shift in El Salvador’s crime-fighting policy, making it clear he favors delegating some of the country’s policing duties–right now the exclusive domain of the PNC–to the military.
“The armed forces will offer help and more support than it has up to now,” said Funes. “It’s an institution that has the ability [to fight crime] despite some people’s doubts about whether it’s trained for this.”
The military says it is ready and willing to take on the new role. There are now 6,500 soldiers–more than 40% of the entire Army–on standby awaiting orders from the president, El Salvador’s Defense Minister Gen. David Munguia Payes said in mid-October. “We’re prepared to operate anywhere in the country. If the president decides to involve the armed forces in the fight against crime, he can give us certain powers that we don’t have at this moment to be able to act as police.”
Desperate times, desperate measures
Given El Salvador’s recent experience with a bloody and protracted civil war (1980-1992), the president’s interest in expanding the domestic role of the military certainly raises eyebrows. Funes is, after all, a member of the FMLN, a now well-established political party that began, nevertheless, as a guerilla organization engaged in a tooth-and-nail struggle against the Army. These days, however, the party appears to be taking the position that desperate times call for desperate measures.
“It’s necessary that the armed forces get involved in security,” party coordinator Medardo Gonzalez said on Oct. 16.
The popular president–whose approval rating stands at over 80%, according to opinion polls–is also being backed by the Catholic Church. San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas said recently that using the military to fight crime “could certainly help.”
But others, including several high-profile former military officers, question the strategy, saying it could end up costing the armed forces the positive reputation it has earned since the 1992 Peace Accords (see Central American Update, 1992-01-10 and Central American Update, 1992-01-17), which redefined the military’s role by distancing it from internal security matters.
“The Army should never be placed in the position of losing battles it can’t win,” political columnist Joaquin Samayoa recently wrote. “The participation of the armed forces could end up being not only irrelevant but also counterproductive, because its eventual failure could end up exacerbating the population’s feeling of impotence and sending the nefarious message to the criminals that nothing can really stop them.”
As it stands, the Constitution prohibits the military from engaging in domestic crime-fighting directly. Currently some 2,000 soldiers are involved in auxiliary roles, supporting the PNC through units called Grupos de Ayuda Communitarios. The troops do not, however, have the right to arrest or pursue criminals directly.
But the Constitution also contains a clause allowing the president to give the armed forces extraordinary powers if ordinary means are deemed insufficient for maintaining “domestic peace, tranquility, and public safety.”
In his Oct. 20 speech, Funes said he has yet to decide exactly which new functions the military should assume. He insisted he has no plans to put the armed forces in any position where it might violate the Constitution. He did, however, admit that some legal changes may be required to open the door for the Army’s expanded role.
“The experts that we’ve consulted have said that probably, for certain missions, some legal changes would be required. In that case we’ll ask the Asamblea Legislativa (AL) to make the necessary legal reforms,” said Funes.
Death in the Northern Triangle
The recently published UNDP report said that El Salvador’s murder rate in 2008 was 52 per 100,000 residents–nearly six times the world average (nine per 100,000) and more than double the overall rate in Latin America (25 per 100,000).
The problem, however, extends beyond the country’s borders to include Central America in general and the “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) in particular. The triangle’s 33 murders per 100,000 residents, the UNDP study says, make it the most dangerous nonconflict zone on the planet. In total, the report states, 79,000 Central Americans were murdered between 2003 and 2008.
To explain the mayhem, the UNDP points to factors such as entrenched poverty, huge income disparities, drug trafficking, an “abundance” of marginalized youth, and the widespread availability in Central America of both legal and illegal firearms.
“Although these numbers are always debatable, it’s estimated that in Central America there are nearly 3 million firearms in circulation. Of those, as many as two out of three could be illegal. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are likely the countries with the greatest numbers of weapons, especially illegal ones,” the report reads.
To successfully confront the problem, governments would do better to pursue a “smart authority” approach rather than fall into the trap of assuming police work alone can reduce criminal activity, the UNDP recommends. The international body defines smart authority as a middle ground between “strong-arm” and “soft-touch” policies, one that strengthens public institutions, promotes both coercive and preventative incentives, but that also encourages a more active role by citizens groups.
“Security is everyone’s right, and the state has the duty to provide it,” said Hernando Gomez Buendia, the report’s general coordinator. “Without security, there is no investment. Without investment, there is no employment, and without employment, there is no human development. Security is an essential part of the development strategy of nations and cities.”
(This article originally appeared in Latin America Data Base – 2009-10-29)

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