Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle has been at the center of attention for the past two weeks, and not particularly for the right reasons. Stories of corruption, impunity, deteriorating security, and the revival of the ghost of presidential re-election covered newspaper headlines throughout the isthmus.
The news coming out of the region comes at a time when the diplomatic offensive from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala intensifies as the countries seek quick approval and funding for the Alliance for Prosperity from the United States.
El Salvador’s spike in homicides has illustrated the urgent need to address the structural causes of violence. After a failed gang truce brokered by the Catholic Church and the Salvadoran government with the country’s main gangs failed, murder rates increased dramatically. In the first four months of 2015, street gangs murdered over 20 police officers and the targeted murder of members of the Armed Forces also increased.
Facing growing pressure from citizens, the government initially flip-flopped in their policy response. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Defense Minister General Munguía Payes first blamed the surge in violence on the media; arguing that “media coverage of violence does more harm than the attacks on police precincts.” The push-back from media and ordinary citizens living under the shadows of extortion and other crimes didn’t wait. Citizens were further infuriated by reports of plasma televisions and video game consoles, among other illegal items, being discovered within the country’s prisons.In response, the FMLN government decided to shift its strategy towards further increasing the role of the military, creating batallones de reacción inmediata (specialized quick response battalions) comprised of soldiers trained to fight gangs. These quick response battalions were last used by the military during the civil war of the 1980s. In essence, the policy approach has been to increase the militarization of citizen security, an approach the FMLN strongly criticized during its tenure as the leading opposition party.
The current citizen security situation in El Salvador should be cause for great concern for anyone who has a stake or interest in the country. The immediate effects of citizen insecurity are clear and have been widely reported on. One of the most troubling consequences of citizen insecurity is how it’s slowly eroding the public’s trust in institutions, but more importantly, trust in democracy. High impunity rates, corruption and inefficiency within the Salvadoran judicial system have contributed to this undermining of democratic institutions.
Among the many interventions and support that can be provided to address the citizen security crisis, improvements to the political system are critical. It’s imperative to strengthen civil society’s capacity to engage political actors, as well as encourage agreements among political stakeholders within the three branches of government and among political parties. El Salvador’s political parties made a historic mistake by politicizing citizen security and crime prevention in the early 2000s. Since then, rather than solving the root causes and taking decisive action, more effort has been concentrated on ensuring citizen security remains a political and sometimes even ideological issue.
As El Salvador’s new Legislative Assembly prepares to be sworn in on May 1, expectations are mounting for a renewed interest in drafting viable, credible, and well-funded laws to curb citizen insecurity. The new Legislative Assembly will include a sizeable number of new legislators who campaigned under the promise that they would bring new ideas and an interest in dignifying the legislative branch.
As El Salvador moves into the second semester of the year and the current government completes its first year in power, citizens demand concrete actions that improve their security situation. The current crisis, once again, may serve as an opportunity for political agreements on how to address rising violence and to forge a national (not government) policy for tackling the structural causes and consequences of citizen insecurity. Dropping demagogy and opportunistic rhetoric looking for short term political gains should be left in the past.