El Salvador Opposition Proposes Back-to-the-Future Security Plan

The Salvadoran news website La Página reported yesterday that the opposition ARENA party plans to introduce a bill to deploy some 10,000 military reservists in 22 of the country’s most violent cities. The proposal is likely an attempt to politicize the increasing violence in El Salvador in the wake of a tenuous gang-government truce forged in 2012 that seems to have come undone.

El Salvador has registered more than 3,000 murders this year, already a higher figure than the total of about 2,500 observed last year when the truce – perhaps deceptively – appeared to  be holding. According to the proposed law, the military would take over security operations in especially violent locales until preventative plans, including community-based policing initiatives, could be implemented.

El Salvador has experimented with an alternative to the “mano-dura” policies suggested by the ARENA bill. Starting in 2011 in Santa Ana with support from the U.S. State Department, the country began developing community policing models focused on taking proactive measures to prevent and deter crime and to target law enforcement resources more efficiently, rather than pursuing a scattershot “catch-and-release” policy. After his inauguration earlier this year, President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said he wanted to expand such non-traditional citizen security programs nationally.

ARENA lost El Salvador’s presidential election earlier this year by a very thin margin, running on a platform promising an iron-fisted crackdown on crime and fear-mongering about the radical leftist background of its FMLN opponent, current President Sanchez Ceren. Although the party’s new proposal to militarize citizen security in El Salvador is unlikely to pass the FMLN-controlled congress, it does serve as a bit of red meat for ARENA’s conservative base in light of upcoming legislative and municipal elections scheduled for March 2015.

Misael Mejía, a congressman from the governing FMLN party, voiced concerns that the proposed militarization of security operations could increase the already rising violence, citing the example of Mexico’s bloody “war on drugs” as a cautionary tale for El Salvador. Security Minister Benito Lara has similarly rejected the idea of declaring states of emergency that would allow the military to assume public security functions.

Police are meant to catch criminals. Militaries are meant to make war. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that militarized policing tactics tend to increase, rather than decrease, violence. In Latin America, crackdowns like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico have often driven weaker, less ruthless groups out of the black markets, reducing competition for already-powerful players.

This allows these groups to concentrate their resources on corrupting and intimidating police forces, politicians and the public. Mexico’s crackdown on the cartels, aided by billions of dollars in Merida Initiative funding, has not only failed to decrease the violence in the country, but may actually have contributed to the sharp increase in homicides and extortion seen in recent years.

The second effect that an increasingly militarized approach could have would be to further disperse the conflict. Many powerful criminal groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18 grew out of street gangs started in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and maintain networks in the U.S. and Canada to this day. Migration, some of it fueled by crime and violence, may be further spreading the reach and influence of these gangs across regional borders.

While many top officials and respected commentators have argued otherwise,  a “new-and-improved” version of Plan Colombia or the Merida Initiative won’t solve Central America’s security problems. To a certain extent, such an initiative has already been implemented. Countries like El Salvador (and Guatemala and Honduras) don’t necessarily need more cops, judges and jails – they needs better-functioning institutions all around.