Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: Violence Imposes Huge Economic Burden

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, May 27 2008 (IPS) - Medical care for victims, protection of property and restoring material damages caused by the high level of crime in El Salvador take up a large proportion of state resources, while the authorities are failing to come up with a solution for the rising tide of violence.

El Salvador is being stalked by an “epidemic of violence” that is draining the population and severely harming the economy, said Rafael Pleitez of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), a think tank for local private enterprise.

“The climate of violence and criminality is a high cost for the country to bear; it affects foreign investment and has human, economic and social costs, especially for the public health service,” said the FUSADES representative.

Pleitez told IPS that many companies are extorted by gangs and organised crime up and down the country, to whom they have to pay “tolls” when their vehicles enter certain areas to distribute merchandise.

Official sources say that between 2003 and 2007, more than 16,000 murders were committed, 80 percent of them with firearms.

The authorities estimate that there are 450,000 firearms in private hands in this country, although only 170,000 are legally registered.

According to the latest census, which was carried out in May 2007 and whose results were released early this month, El Salvador has a murder rate of 64 per 100,000 population, one of the highest in Latin America – and the world.

Previous government projections, based on the 1992 census, assumed that El Salvador had a population of nearly seven million, but the 2007 census recorded only 5.7 million people.

The difference of nearly 20 percent in the population figures is reportedly due to a sharp drop in the birth rate between 1998 and 2002, which had escaped the authorities’ notice, and to increased emigration, mainly to the United States, where some 2.5 million Salvadorans live and work.

A 2006 study by FUSADES says the high crime rates “are seriously eroding the quality of life” of the population, and “are a hindrance to development.”

In addition, FUSADES’ survey of companies indicates that 28.5 percent of businesses were victims of crime in the second quarter of 2006, with the largest firms being the most affected.

Company owners spend millions of dollars on building fortresses with sophisticated anti-burglary devices to safeguard their businesses and homes. They pay thousands of private security guards who stand, machine-guns or revolvers in hand, at the entrances of banks, shopping malls, shops, and private schools and universities.

A study carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that in 2003, violence had cost 1.72 billion dollars, then equivalent to 11.5 percent of gross domestic product, including health and psychological costs, production losses, effects on investment and material losses.

The 87-page document, which was published in 2005, estimated the average cost to the emotional health of relatives of a murder victim, in monetary terms, as 75,000 dollars. An injury was calculated at 2,000 dollars and a rape at 5,000 dollars.

Jeannette Aguilar, head of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), would not venture to estimate a figure for the recent cost of violence, but she told IPS that “logically, since the number of murders shot up between 2003 and 2007” and extortion has also risen, the costs must have increased considerably.

The annual cost to every company affected by crime, added to the expense of protection, averages 63,316 dollars, resources that could well have been spent on buying computers or other equipment, particularly in smaller businesses, said Pleitez.

The National Civil Police (PNC), the country’s only police force, has 16,000 officers, while according to the Foundation for the Study of Applied Law (FESPAD), there are more than 400 agencies employing 25,000 private security guards.

The deputy chief of the PNC, José Luis Tobar, confirmed to IPS that the police spend heavily from their “limited budget” to combat crime. They have been allocated a budget of 217 million dollars for 2008.

The PNC even have a ready reckoner for their costs. Every police operation involving 100 officers costs 3,500 dollars. Air support for an operation has an extra cost of between 250 and 985 dollars an hour.

The police force carries out “mega-operations,” often involving hundreds of agents, like “Quezaltepeque seguro” in early May with the participation of 600 police officers and several aircraft, which involved searches of dozens of homes and arrests of nearly 100 gang members in that town, located about 12 kilometres from San Salvador.

Experts, civil society organisations and religious leaders have criticised the police for this type of sweep which, in their view, do not deter crime. They complain that for over a decade they have presented, in conjunction with research centres and the UNDP, assessments and proposals for how to approach the problem, but that they have not been heard.

“An integrated strategy is needed to counter violence,” that in addition to law enforcement efforts would involve heavy spending on prevention, and in which private businesses would assume their share of “social responsibility,” said Pleitez.

For instance, he said, out of every 10 young people of high school age, only between three and four are actually in school. The rest are outside the educational system, and if they have no jobs, they are at high risk of being inducted into a gang or other criminal activities.

Progress in “the war against violence” depends on “greater social investment, raising attendance in secondary school, and more closely linking social policies with law enforcement and safety policies,” said Pleitez.

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