Should the Armed Forces fight the crime wave?

Photo by Jesus Flores

Stories like this one are too common in El Salvador:
SAN SALVADOR – One person was killed and four others wounded when two suspected gang members shot up a tortilla stand outside the Salvadoran capital, police said Thursday.

They said the attack took place Wednesday night in a rural area of the municipality of Apopa.

The assailants walked into the small shop and opened fire, a police officer told Efe, killing Ernestina Barahona, 58, and leaving four other people wounded, including an 11-year-old boy.

While authorities did not suggest a motive for the attack, protection payments extorted from bus drivers and owners of small businesses represent a major source of income for El Salvador’s fearsome youth gangs.

The year 2009 seems to be headed towards the highest murder total yet. Just in the first 13 days of October, there were 201 homicides -- an average of 15 a day. The wave of murder and extortion disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable parts of Salvadoran society.

Faced with this human tragedy, José M. Tojeira, rector of the University of Central America, wrote a column in Diario Colatino titled "In the fight against crime." Tojeira made a proposal that half of the current armed forces be switched to the National Civilian Police (PNC) in order to fight crime in the country:
De corto plazo sería integrar a la mitad de las fuerzas militares en el cuerpo policial. En la fuerza Armada hay recurso humano, oficiales con capacidad de disciplina, con buena formación administrativa y acostumbrados a tratar los problemas con racionalidad y estrategia.

Traspasarlos a la PNC, juntos con sus tropas, podría implicar un proceso máximo de un año de entrenamiento y formación policial. Pero en un año se estaría incluyendo en la PNC aproximadamente cinco mil personas sin un costo presupuestario especial. Quedarían en el Ejército otros cinco mil hombres que podrían utilizarse tanto para misiones de paz en el exterior, asistencia en tiempo de desastres, etc.

La idea puede parecer loca, pero es mejor que andar sacando militares a la calle a acompañar a los de la PNC. Nuestro país no tiene amenazas externas y en realidad no necesita ejército. Pero si se quiere mantener por esos temas de cooperación internacional en misiones de paz o de ayuda en tiempo de desastre, con cinco mil miembros sería suficiente. En un país de escasos recursos, y donde la delincuencia está ocasionando costos humanos tan elevados, las decisiones tienen que ser radicales. Sobre todo si decimos que las personas son primero.

One short term step would be to integrate half of the military into the police. In the armed forces there is a human resource, officers with the ability for discipline, well trained in administration and accustomed to dealing with problems with rationality and strategy.

To transfer them to the PNC, together with their troops, is a process could involve up to one year of training and police formation. But in a year, included in the PNC would be approximately five thousand people without a special budgetary cost. There would remain in the army five thousand men that could be used both for peacekeeping missions abroad, in times of disaster assistance, etc..

The idea may seem crazy, but it's better than taking out soldiers walking the streets to accompany the PNC. Our country has no external threats and in reality an army is not really needed. But if you want to keep them for issues of international cooperation in peace missions and aid in time of disaster, five thousand members would be sufficient. In a country with limited resources and where crime is causing such high human cost, decisions have to be radical. Especially if we say that people come first.

There are already some 2000 members of the armed forces designated to support units who patrol high crime areas in tandem with police patrols. You can see them in their army fatigues and M-16 rifles walking along with PNC officers in their characteristic navy blue uniforms. This practice was started under former president Tony Saca and continues today. Tojeira's proposal would involve a much larger number of people -- but would they be acting as members of the military or would they be former soldiers now under civilian police command?

The idea of moving more than 5000 soldiers into the fight against crime in El Salvador took off immediately. President Mauricio Funes indicated that it was an idea worth considering, at the same time as the PNC was declaring a state of emergency because of the increased number of homicides. Meanwhile the Armed Forces stated that they would propose dedicating 6500 troops to combating crime, in a proposal which clearly maintained the troops under the control of the military command structure.

La Prensa Grafica reported that the Human Rights Ombudsman, Oscar Humberto Luna supported the temporary use of the armed forces to combat crime, although he had reservations. The archbishop of San Salvador endorsed the idea yesterday in his press conference.

Lutheran bishop Medardo Gomez also wanted limitations:
En cuanto al tema de la violencia y la inseguridad, Gómez sostuvo que el uso de la fuerza armada para combatir dichos problemas sociales “debe de ser una medida temporal y sujeta a la supervisión policial”. Obispo asegura que de no hacerse así “se correría el riesgo de volver al militarismo, por lo cual estos problemas se deben de tratar desde la raíz, para evitar que la medicina sea peor que la enfermedad”.

With regard to the to the issue of violence and insecurity, Gomez maintained that the use of the armed forces to fight said social problems “should be a temporary measure and subject to police supervision.” The Bishop stated that not doing so “would run the risk of returning to militarism, which is why these problems should be dealt with at their root causes, so that the medicine is not worse than the disease.”

Director of the Human Rights Institute at the UCA, Benjamin Cueller, however, sounds a cautionary note in a column in the online periodical ContraPunto, emphasizing that the original proposal from the Tojeira was for a dramatic reduction of the size of the armed forces and the re-training of soldiers as civilians. Cuellar pointed to the danger created when the armed forces refuse to be subject to civilian judicial authority if a soldier kills an innocent civilian in cold blood. He pointed to the military coup in Honduras and questioned whether El Salvador wanted to return to a situation where the armed forces saw themselves as the guarantor of their view of an ordered society.

These are questions of constitutional significance in El Salvador. Under El Salvador's constitution and the 1992 Peace Accords, public security is the job of a professional, civilian police force to be completely separate from the Armed Forces. The President is allowed to call out the armed forces, only in exceptional circumstances after he has exhausted all ordinary means of maintaining public order. (El Sal. Const. Art. 159 and 168) For many in El Salvador, the extortion and murder afflicting many communities, now justify such extraordinary measures. It is an age old question which many societies grapple with -- how much civil liberty are are citizens willing to cede to their government in return for physical security?

A decision from Mauricio Funes about the role of the armed forces will come soon. In a symptom of how the crime wave is impacting Salvadoran society, rumors were circulating today that gangs were going to attack schools or particular municipalities in response to the plans to involve the army in crime fighting.

Thanks to Larry Ladutke for our conversation which formed part of the background for this post.


El-Visitador said…
Well... finally people start realizing that... we have too few cops —we have less than half the cops per each 100,000 citizens than many cities in the U.S. do.

17,000 policemen is just too few for a country of 6,000,000.

However, it is absolutely moronic to pull untrained, iliterate soldiers to do police work. This will end in tears.

It would be better to double the PNC from 17,000 to 35,000 —with trained, Academy-graduated cops. All you need is a bit over $100 mill. Piece of cake if just a couple of any number of utterly useless bureaucracies are closed. I'm thinking CONCULTURA (now a ministry!), or MARN, or MITUR, or any other of hundreds of letter-soup bureaucracies.
Tim said…
The statistics can be argued all sorts of ways. New York City has a population of 8.6 million, and has 36,000 polioe officers. (source). Los Angeles has a population of 3.8 million and has only 10,000 police officers (source) -- a ratio not much different than El Salvador (and with the same gangs to fight).
Ethan S. James said…
Bringing the army in seems like a good option, but in reality, it will merely be an extension of "mano dura" policies, which haven't been working. I have been in Las Campaneras in Soyapango, there's army people with M16's all over the place, and it's still one of the most dangerous areas in the world. More police would be great, but they need to fix the judiciary, which convicts very few peoople. The police round up lots of people, and they never go to jail. And, if you look at who they're arresting, these people have been convicted before. Most crimes are, in fact, directed from the prisons.
There are cops all over el centro. In the photo used in this post, the murder was committed AT THE SAME TIME that the chief of police, the minister of security, and innumerable police officers were two blocks away or less. "Castle Greyskull", the police headquarters, is also in El Centro, and it doesn't matter. As long as the Salvadoran government doesn't address the causes of gang violence, nothing they do will work. Whether that's poverty, economics, or simply a way to do smarter community policing, whatever, that's a larger question. But more cops will be, essentially, more of the same. They need a new approach.
El-Visitador said…

I encourage you to do a closer reading of your source. Here is what the page you quoted has to say about the LAPD:

«Compared to most other large cities in the United States, Los Angeles has historically had one of the lowest ratios of police personnel to population served»

«The LAPD has vast resources, including the third largest civilian air force in the country»

«and more than 3,000 civilian staff»

Modern C3 (communications, command control) infrastructure makes each body in the ground count 2, 3, 10 times more than the enemy. This is known as the force multiplier effect.

Think the PNC has much in the way of airforce, support staff, and air force?

I have always said that El Salvador would need at least twice as many cops as any US city to even closely approach parity, given the fact our poor cops have nearly no tech support.

So don't come and tell me we have proportionally the same police strenght as L.A. Come on!

Dude, our cops still use typewriters, because "there is no money", because all the money is sucked up dry by perfectly useless entities such as MARN, CONCULTURA, MITUR, MINEC, ISTA etc.
Tim said…

I don't disagree with your points. El Salvador doesn't have enough trained police, and it has too large an army for a country that faces no external threats. I simply point out that comparing ratios of police officers to the population is fraught with difficulty.

Let's have 6500 soldiers be dismissed from the military, find a way to give them quality resources and training, and beef up the PNC with funds from the reduced military budget. It'll never happen, but what if it could?
"There are already some 2000 members of the armed forces designated to support units who patrol high crime areas in tandem with police patrols. You can see them in their army fatigues and M-16 rifles walking along with PNC officers in their characteristic navy blue uniforms. This practice was started under former president Tony Saca and continues today."

Let's be clear--these policies go back to Calderon Sol. They have been tried for over a decade and, as people such as Cuellar indicate, they have been clearly DEMONSTRATED FAILURES.

More of the same will not change anything. It is time to clean up the PNC and turn it into the force envisioned in the peace accords.
BRENDAN!! said…
Salvadoran police are generally unprofessional and ineffective-- is it time we accept that sending police leaders to the School of the Americas may not be a bad idea?
Why are "generally unprofessional and ineffective"?

Because the ARENA governments routinely violated the peace accords by MILITARIZING the PNC--the transfers of the notroriosu Commission the Investigation of Criminal Acts, the DAN, etc., for example. These military forces brought:

lack of police training
lack of professionalism
lack of investigation
reliance on brute force

How will FURTHER militarization help? That's like expecting Tic Tac to help an alcoholic!
Anonymous said…
I agree with the above poster. Also Mr. Ludetke, your wrote a worthwhile and informative book about the inadequacy of the post-war Salvadoran media to carryout objective journalism, as a national media should.

Of course, during the war the print media was oriented toward covering up the most heinous crimes carried out by the Salvadoran army, security forces, and "death squads."

Since the destruction by the Salvadoran military of El Independiente and La Cronica del Pueblo in 1980, a critical print media hadn't existed, until the post-war advent of El Diario Co-Latino.