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El Salvador uses failed ‘iron fist’ policies against rising crime

By Lynn Herrmann     Feb 7, 2012 in Politics
San Salvador - El Salvador's government has increasingly turned to its military in attempts at curbing escalating crime connected to gang-related drug trafficking, and President Mauricio Funes' actions are called a return to failed "iron fist" policies of the past.
Accusations of U.S. involvement in El Salvador have begun surfacing as Funes continues militarizing his government’s security cabinet, with complaints arising from within his own ranks.
Funes came into power two and a half years ago, the first president elected under the FMLN, a guerilla group-turned political powerhouse, the first president elected in such a manner since the country’s civil war ended in 1992.
After taking power, Funes increased the country’s army by 57 percent, bringing its ranks to more than 17,000. He has occasionally used the military in policing the streets of El Salvador.
In November, Funes named David Munguia Payes, the country’s former defense minister and a retired general, as security minister. In January, Funes followed the military leader’s appointment with another military appointment to the country’s governmental structure, selecting former army general Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivers to head the country’s police, known as the PNC.
The latest announcement has raised questions, due to Salinas Rivers’ army resignation just days before his appointment to lead the PNC.
This recent trend by Funes is a continuation of the Latin American country’s ongoing dependence on its military. In the last decade, El Salvador’s defense budget has increased by 32 percent.
Opponents of Funes’ recent appointments include members of his own FMLN party, who state the Munguia appointment appears to be “a decision that was made somewhere in the U.S. capital,” according to The Christian Science Monitor (CSM).
In response, Funes calls it a “more forceful” tactic in dealing with a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country. His action is being promoted as taking decisive action against the country’s homicide rate of around 70 per 100,000 people, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
“What society asks and demands from us is results, and the president seeks results, not sterile debates or discussions,” he recently said, CSM reports.
Calling it a spreading “rot,” The Economist noted last year the “northern triangle” is the most violent region on the planet. This area in the isthmus of Central America, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is experiencing some of the highest murder rates in the world. Also included in this triangle of death are Jamaica and Venezuela.
In 2003, El Salvador’s then-president Francisco Flores Pérez instituted the Plan Mano Dura, (the Iron Fist Plan), a severe tactic used to arrest and imprison suspected gang members based on their appearance. Many gang members in El Salvador pledge their allegiance by displaying tattoos.
After announcement of Plan Mano Dura, incarceration of gang members increased two-fold, from 4,000 to 8,000 in just four years’ time.
As a result, the overcrowded jails became a breeding ground for hardened criminals, allowing gangs to regroup, reorganize and spur creation of intricate webs of extortion.
Speaking last week, Muguia called for legal reform which would increase government measures, and in an El Faro interview said, “Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed.”
According to CSM, Muguia said he is willing to lock up another 10,000 gang members, putting “the criminals where they should be, and take them off the streets.”
There are approximately 18,000 gang members in El Salvador, with an additional 10,000 already behind bars. The currently overcrowded prison system could suffer disastrous results if the Muguia plan proceeds.
Muguia blames the country’s violence on two groups, the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), labeled one of the most notorious street gangs in the Western Hemisphere. However, by focusing on these two, Munguia is being accused of ignoring cartels such as the Texis Cartel and the Perrones, organizers of most of the country’s transportation of drugs, migrants and weapons.
By some accounts, the Mexican mafias, including the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, deserve much of the blame. Zeta training camps currently exist in Guatemala, in instances using laid-off soldiers. Since 1996, the Guatemalan government cut its army strength by two-thirds, The Economist states.
CSM notes the new military men bring no new ideas to the table, simply a “well-rehearsed narrative” claiming wild gangs are terrorizing the countryside and the only way in dealing with the terror is through the use of increased force and imprisonment.
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