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As the week got started, pupils at Reino de Suecia
school heard a shooting going on. The school is located in the San Roque quarter,
in the municipality of Mejicanos, about 21 kilometers north from San Salvador, the
Salvadoran capital city. In a cobblestoned street surrounded by composite
construction houses, dusty buildings and walls which make the place a high-risk
landslide and mudslide zone in winter time, three unidentified men shot a 20
year-old bus driver. Twenty-four hours later, police detectives were back in
San Roque investigating the murder of another young man on a public transport
The two homicides in the San Roque quarter are to be
added to the 3.375 violent deaths which, according to National Civil Police
(PNC) data, have been registered in El Salvador between January and November 7,
2017. On average, eleven people are
murdered every day. This is a homicide epidemic and the Salvadoran government is
trying to face it by increasing taxes to fund a new tough-line policy against
gangs. But insecurity in the streets remains. "I feel that nothing has
changed. The homicides continue and I do not hear anyone say that the gangs
have lowered their extortion quotas", says Genaro Ramírez, a local transport
Ramírez, a big-eyed, black-haired and white-skinned
man, owns the buses that run from San Roque to San Salvador’s historic center.
He has been in the business for a long time, but keeps no office in San Roque, for
he fears for his life. What he does keep is a collection of anonymous death
threats and intimidation messages requiring "rent" payment – that is,
extortion money. A transport company normally pays between 400 and 1.500 dollars
for its buses to be allowed to safely run through gang-controlled neighborhoods
and communities. When their managers file a complaint or refuse to pay, murders
follow. And the dead add up to the uncomfortable statistics that the Salvadoran
authorities only just managed to control in 2012, when they negotiated with the
On average, eleven people are murdered every day.
The right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party (Arena)
was in power in El Salvador for 20 years (1989-2009). During that period, on
July 23, 2003, President Francisco Flores launched a security policy that turned
El Salvador into one of the most violent countries in Latin America. The
strategy, known as the "Heavy Hand Plan", aimed at jailing gang
members, whom the government accused of being responsible for the 6.9 daily
homicides registered in the country, on grounds of their outward appearance
only. A year later, Flores's successor, Antonio Saca, transformed the plan into
"Super Heavy Hand", and promised to throw all the "bad
guys" in jail.
What these shock policies did was to aggravate the
Salvadoran public security problem. During the first year of the "Heavy
Hand Plan," the average daily homicide rate increased from 6.9 to 8.3. In
addition, the Plan helped to consolidate the leadership of the gang members who
were arrested and then were freed, a few hours later, on grounds of lack of
evidence. In 2009, Arena lost the elections and handed power to the Farabundo
Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla, which ruled the
country for the very first time.
The first left-wing president, Mauricio Funes, found
himself facing a country where 12 people were killed every day – 300 a month.
"It is a complete shame that El Salvador is the most violent country in
Latin America. We must work hard to
change this. Modernizing the police is essential", he said. In his first
three years in office, Funes failed to modernize the police and to control the surge
in murders. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) standards, a
homicide rate exceeding 10 per 100.000 is considered an epidemic. In 2010, Funes’s
first year in power, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 62 per 100.000.
But then the country witnessed a turnabout in public safety policy. The
Funes government secretly negotiated prison benefits in exchange for a
reduction of homicides with 30 leaders of the main gangs (Mara Salvatrucha,
MS-13, Barrio 18, Sureños and Revolucionarios). The gang members were
transferred from the maximum security prison to prisons with less rigid
controls and, in a matter of hours, homicide rates plummeted. In April 2012,
during the first month of the truce, homicides fell from 13 to 5.2 a day, an unheard
of reduction in the last two decades. The homicide rate fell from 60 to 40 per
100.000 inhabitants – so, although the reduction was significant, the country
continued to suffer a homicide epidemic, according to WHO parameters.
Luis Enrique Amaya, an international consultant and
researcher on citizen security who has co-authored a study on this issue (The truce between gangs as a form of
intervention on violence), explains that the United States, Trinidad and
Tobago, Honduras and Jamaica used the same strategy of negotiating with the gangs.
Amaya thinks, however, that the Salvadoran case is exceptional: "It is
probably the most successful truce in the whole Western Hemisphere. There has
not been any so successful in lowering homicides".
In El Salvador, it pays to stand for the death of gang members rather than for comprehensive rehabilitation programs to reduce violence.
But while it was certainly a successful strategy for
reducing homicides, negotiating with gangs turned out not to be a good move for
a politician’s popularity. In El Salvador, politically, it pays to stand for
the death of gang members rather than for comprehensive rehabilitation programs
to reduce violence. President Funes always denied that his government had negotiated
with the gangs. Then, in 2014, after changes in his security cabinet, the truce
became a dying process for lack of political support. That year ended with a
count of 3.912 murders and the homicide rate rose again to more than 60.
The current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN),
began his term of office in 2015 with a bang on the table: "We do not want
to follow that strategy (the truce) because it has allowed the expansion and
strengthening of the gangs. (…) We cannot go back to negotiating and reaching
agreements with the gangs, because that is outside the law. Gang members have
placed themselves outside the law and, therefore, our duty is to persecute and punish
them and let justice determine the penalties they deserve". So, a new shock
policy against the gangs was born, a new "Heavy Hand Plan" now known
as "extraordinary measures".
The government has restricted family visits to
prisons, limited the detainees' communications with their lawyers, deployed
police and soldiers in gang-controlled communities and has had a new tax on
telephone and internet services passed in Congress, so as to equip the police
and fund rehabilitation projects. Thanks to this new tax, the government
collected last year 50.5 million dollars. The gangs have reacted with an
increase in homicides: 2015 ended with 6.657 homicides, a rate of 104 per 100.000
inhabitants, making it the most violent year since the signing of the 1992
Peace Agreements. This figure has meant that El Salvador has overtaken
Honduras, considered until now the most violent country in Latin America.
Two very serious phenomena for Salvadoran public
security lie in the background of this extremely high number of homicides.
First, as a reaction to the government's new policy,
gangs have been targeting police officers, soldiers, prison guards and their
families. So far this year, 41 police employees and 20 family members have been
killed. The last recorded case happened in a rural area in the department of
Santa Ana, in western El Salvador, where gang members murdered a policeman, his
six-month-pregnant wife and his four-year-old daughter. "I am just back
from the scene where my colleague was shot. A very tough scene (…), I must tell
you: what sadness and how I wish we can kill those sons of a bitch", a
police investigator said through social networks.
"How I wish we can kill those sons of a bitch".
The police are the victims now, but in some cases they
have also become perpetrators of gang-member murders. The new government
security policy has unleashed a new spiral of violence: El Faro, La Prensa Gráfica
and Factum magazine have revealed
that some police officers have been involved in illegal executions, which they
then try to cover up as fake confrontations with criminals. The Office of the
Prosecutor, for its part, has ordered the capture of several police officers
and soldiers accused of being members of a network for the extermination of
Even in the face of this, the government is defending
its security strategy. On Tuesday, November 7, when the police was investigating
the second murder in the San Roque quarter and the number of homicides in the
first week of the month was already 54, the government held a forum in which it
highlighted the advances in security and citizen cohabitation in the country.