Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: More Troops on the Streets to Fight Crime

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 13 2009 (IPS) - José, a 46-year-old street vendor in the Salvadoran capital, says he is happy that the leftist government of Mauricio Funes decided to put more army troops on the streets to help fight the soaring levels of crime.

“For a long time I had been thinking they should do it, because we really need a greater presence of the authorities; it’s a good thing,” José tells IPS, recalling how many times youth gang members have demanded he fork over cash, and when he didn’t have any, took a few of the ‘quesadillas’ – folded tortillas filled with cheese – that he sells for a living.

“People can’t take it any more,” he adds.

President Funes of the guerrilla group-turned-political party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), who was sworn in on Jun. 1, reported that 2,500 army troops began carrying out joint patrols with the police on Nov. 6, for six months.

After the six-month period is over, the president will submit a report on the results of the measure to Congress.

The troops are joining the 1,300 soldiers already providing back-up to the police as part of the Joint Community Support Groups – the Funes administration’s version of the Joint Task Forces (GTCs) put on the streets by previous governments of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which governed the country from 1989 to 2009.

In response to criticism to the decision to assign military troops to policing activities, Funes cited article 168 of the constitution, which states that the army can be used to strengthen public security under exceptional circumstances.

The soldiers will patrol the streets in the 19 municipalities with the highest crime rates, in the provinces of Sonsonate, La Libertad, Santa Ana, San Salvador and San Miguel. However, the president did not provide the names of the specific districts.

“If you tell a criminal where and how you’re going to operate, he’ll just get prepared, and that’s exactly what we don’t want,” the president said in a press conference.

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world: 52 per 100,000 population, compared to the Latin American average of 25 per 100,000.

So far this year, there have been 3,673 murders in this country of 5.8 million people – 494 more than in the same period in 2008, according to police statistics.

The novel aspect of the measure is that soldiers will now be allowed to carry out searches and arrest people, and to set up checkpoints on the roads – something that hadn’t been seen since the 1980-1992 civil war, in which 80,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed, mainly by government troops and far-right paramilitaries.

“The armed forces will be able to search houses, frisk people, set up checkpoints, and arrest people caught red-handed,” said Funes.

“Of course they will not hold onto the suspects, who will be handed over to the National Civil Police, and the armed forces will have to document each arrest, so that they do not break any laws,” he added.

Like José, the quesadilla vendor, most people in San Salvador would appear to support the measure, to judge by reactions gathered by the media, as well as opinion polls.

According to a survey by the El Diario de Hoy newspaper, published Nov. 3, 93 percent of respondents backed the decision to put troops on the streets to fight crime.

But so far, the joint military-police patrols have not proven to be effective.

The Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence (CCPVJ), an umbrella group of human rights organisations, said in a recent statement that involving soldiers in law enforcement work has failed to cut crime rates.

“Despite the creation of the Joint Task Forces, the number of homicides has gone up, and the National Civil Police have not overcome the hurdles standing in the way of improving their capacity to investigate crimes,” said the Oct. 26 communiqué, issued a week before Funes made his announcement.

Countries like Mexico and Guatemala have already turned to the military to carry out police functions.

A report published this year by the Rand Corporation, a U.S. global policy think tank, says “the security situation in Northern Mexico has deteriorated so precipitously that President Felipe Calderón’s government has deployed more than 40,000 troops to fight the drug cartels and bring order to areas that are dominated by the cartels.”

But the participation of the military in anti-drug operations in that country has come under fire from human rights groups. A July 2008 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) states that it had received 983 complaints of military abuses allegedly committed during anti-drug operations since Calderón took office in December 2006. The violations included illegal searches, arbitrary detentions, rape and torture.

The CNDH urged the government to set a deadline for the withdrawal of the military from police tasks.

Like in El Salvador, crime rates are spiraling in neighbouring Guatemala and Honduras. In fact, these three impoverished Central American countries have the highest rates of non-political violence in the world, according to the UNDP Report on Human Development in Central America 2009-2010, released in late October.

IPS recently reported that 1,000 troops would be sent to the province of Quiché in Guatemala to fight crime.

The Amnesty International Report 2009 on Guatemala says that “Members of the security forces, either on or off duty, were believed to be implicated in many killings.”

“In January, the bodies of two men aged 17 and 23 were found by a roadside to the south of Guatemala City,” says the London-based rights group. “They had been strangled with ropes and then shot in the head at close range. Although there was reportedly some evidence that the two were killed by members of the security forces, no significant investigation had taken place by the end of the year.”

During El Salvador’s 12-year armed conflict, the military carried out an open campaign of elimination of left-wing activists. However, after the 1992 peace agreement, which led to a significant downsizing of the armed forces, the military’s image improved.

But experts warn that as the military comes into increasingly direct contact with the population, the risk of human rights violations will rise.

“We cannot rule out that possibility,” Salvador Menéndez, acting director of the ombudsman’s office, told IPS. “But the prestige of the armed forces is being put on the line with this decision, and they will have to be very careful and strictly respect human rights.”

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