El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world. The civil war that lasted through most of the 1980’s ended with a Peace Agreement in 1992. As a result, the economy collapsed, leading to widespread migration. Simultaneously, many Salvadorans who had previously fled to the US were forced to return. Some of these returnees had joined violent gangs during their time in the US and subsequently established similar criminal activity in El Salvador. This has led to an environment in which criminal gangs and drug traffickers constitute a serious security threat.
The major state security providers, the military and the National Civilian Police (PNC), have responded to gang insecurity with militarized and brutal policing tactics, often failing to differentiate between the gangs involved or the crimes that have been committed. At the same time, police corruption leads to extremely low levels of trust from communities. Another security provider can be found in Community Development Associations (ADESCOS), which consist of groups of citizens that work with municipalities to coordinate and implement projects and exchange information with the PNC regarding suspicious activities and individuals, thus serving as a security provider– particularly in rural areas.
El Salvador has other non-state security providers, albeit ones that often undermine the security of the population. The gangs that constitute a major threat to the physical security of individuals also provide security to some degree within their territories against rival gangs. They are known to use brutal measures to punish offences (such as cutting off hands) and create a system in which it can be dangerous for an individual to cross over gang territory lines. Drug traffickers constitute a separate security entity altogether – often they will provide security to civilians in the sense that they will attempt to intimidate gang members into abandoning territory in order to avoid police confrontation. Finally, ex-guerilla vigilantes that were engaged in resistance during El Salvador’s war period have formed security councils that patrol communities – particularly those that were directly tied to war resistance.
The principal security concern that threatens security for all in El Salvador revolves around criminal activity, primarily conducted by gangs and drug traffickers. In the period following the war, the expansion of gang activity and the demobilization of combatants and widespread circulation of weapons among the citizenry all took place amidst a security vacuum. This situation, coupled with El Salvador’s strategic position to drug traffickers, allowed criminal organizations to obtain a large degree of power that has resulted in physical insecurity so severe, that any place outside of the home is dangerous. Extortion, burglary, carjacking, and disappearances frequently occur, and El Salvador has consistently had among the highest homicide rates in the world. Although homicides and crime were initially contained to urban areas, this trend is reversing, with violence and killings expanding into rural areas. This instability has brought major socioeconomic consequences, including widespread poverty and unemployment.
Beyond general crime and poverty, certain groups in El Salvador face other forms of insecurity. Women are especially vulnerable – in one 2017 study, over 67% of women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, with 33% reporting violence in the past month. This is attributed to a common lack of recognition of women’s human rights, and the tendency for women to be viewed as sexual objects that may be blamed for any crimes committed against them. Transgender and homosexuals in El Salvador also face mental and physical abuse as well as discrimination – a type of violence that is “invisible” to society. For more information, watch our Digital Story:
Although the original Peace Accords that inspired the creation of the PNC contained language that proposed a police service grounded in the community, this vision has not been realized for the police of El Salvador. Leftist and rightist groups alike that have assumed executive power have driven police toward more tactical and repressive strategies, and the country’s increase in crime levels have only exacerbated this trend. For instance, in 2016 El Salvador unveiled its Special Forces division, which combined military and police units for joint operations to fight criminal gangs in rural areas. This movement towards a more militarized police force has undermined COP efforts that are perceived by the police as being ‘softer’, or ‘feminine’. Communities are thus met with two opposing practices of policing, making them less likely to trust and work with police. Additionally, communities are reluctant to cooperate or even talk to the police due to the risk of gang retaliation. Read more here.
Still, COP has seen some degree of implementation in El Salvador. In 2014, the Community Police Program was introduced, which provided relevant community training to 21,000 police members who were deployed over the 7 zones and 42 sectors of the capital San Salvador to ascertain security issues and potential action plans. Later, in 2015, the comprehensive 10-year Plan El Salvador Seguro (PESS) initiative was launched by El Salvador’s National Council on Citizen Security which included efforts to strengthen institutions responsible for human security. This initiative has been touted for its success in decreasing homicides, although other experts say this decrease merely represents an increase in gang sophistication to avoid anti-gang police measures.