El Salvador President Mauricio Funes started his third year in office last week with a series of policy announcements primarily dealing with citizen security.
The proposed security policies would first institute compulsory military service for 5,000 at-risk youth between the ages of 14 and 16. These young men and women will be recruited if they reside in high-risk areas prone to gang violence as a deterrent and preventive measure but also as a mechanism for rehabilitation. The caveat is that these youth wouldn’t be trained in weapons use and military tactics. Instead, they would be exposed to military discipline and trained in civil protection measures at times of natural disaster. Recruited men and women would be paid for their service and would later constitute a sort of civil protection reserve—not a bad idea in a country frequently exposed to natural disasters. Other new security measures include the creation of a special committee composed of high-level security cabinet members that would closely follow-up on investigations of serious criminal investigations along with the addition of 1,000 new police officers.
How effective will these new policies be in a context of what seems like a spiraling plague of crime? This has yet to be seen. However, what’s true is that the compulsory military recruitment initiative is the first and perhaps most radical policy initiative made in the region since the Mano Dura programs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the late 1990s and 2000s. Boosting the police force may seem like more of the same, but some experts suggest that increased levels of crime are a result of a lack of state presence. The presence of the police force, at the very least, represents state control of currently gang-ridden territories.
The next obvious question is how soon these measures will be taken. First, Funes has to overcome some legal limitations to the youth military service initiative, and reforms to the Military Career Law must go through the legislative assembly. Some government officials are already criticizing the measure, including the Human Rights Ombudsman, the National Institute for Children and Adolescents and a juvenile judge.
But assuming the youth military program passes, the next step will be how to finance these programs. Borrowing a concept from Colombia, the President has proposed a new security tax for these types of programs. If passed, the tax would require anyone with assets over $500,000 to pay a security tax that would go toward the $400 million security plan. Thus far he seems to have the green light from all political parties, including ARENA, but the private sector has yet to be convinced.
Ideas to improve citizen security and increase economic growth will take center stage as El Salvador heads into legislative and municipal elections in 2012. And certainly new security strategies will be proposed amid the pre-electoral euphoria. But it’s imperative that calls for institutional reform and democratic governance are also made. In a climate of institutional vulnerability and weakness not even 5,000 “new recruits” can save El Salvador’s institutions from organized crime.
*Julio Rank Wright is contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily living in Washington DC.