The heads of El Salvador’s executive and legislative branches are discussing the possibility of having the state arm community groups in the country’s interior in order to combat the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs, which are believed to be responsible for the majority of the 10 homicides committed in the country each day.
This is an old idea, one that was already previously proposed and abandoned in El Salvador due to the possibility that it would create new groups operating outside of the law.
Last month, Eugenio Chicas, spokesperson for President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, said that the executive branch was studying the possibility of creating “citizen security committees” with legal empowerment to “guarantee security” in the territories where they operate.
The official said that the plan would be first launched in 100 municipalities that had low indicators of violence to create a “cordon sanitaire,” or “quarantine,” against gangs in those areas. Later, the possibility of arming the committees would be brought up, Chicas said.
Legislative Assembly President Guillermo Gallegos — a member of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA), which is allied with the governing party in Congress — spoke last week about reforming secondary laws to permit civilian groups to “carry arms on a permanent basis in their communities to safeguard their lives, integrity, and property, as well as those of their neighbors.”
Additionally, Gallegos admitted to “donating” money to a civilian group in a rural area approximately 50 kilometers east of San Salvador. He assured that the money to buy arms came from his own pocket, although he provided no evidence for his claim and had previously been called out for allegedly misusing public money.
The proposals from Salvadoran officials come against the backdrop of a police offensive launched last year to counter the territorial control and high homicide rates attributed to MS13 and Barrio 18. That offensive has entailed the application of “extraordinary” security measures that have included, among other things, the expansion of the length of pretrial detentions and of the participation of the military in public security tasks.
The measures have resulted in a 50 percent reduction in homicides and a relative retreat on the part of the gangs, according to spokespeople from the National Civil Police. However, data obtained by a statistical and research unit at the La Prensa Gráfica newspaper speaks of a more modest reduction from approximately 12 homicides a day in November 2016 to 10 a day in March of this year, with a low of 8 homicides a day this past January.
The governmental measures have also been accompanied by accusations of police involvement in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and other human rights abuses. Journalistic investigations, US State Department reports, and open cases by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office all indicate that these accusations are credible.
Today, critics of the idea of arming civilians understand that such a measure is not only ineffective in combatting violence and gangs, but also might generate more human rights abuses and even result in the creation of new armed groups operating outside the law.
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The idea of giving arms to civilian groups has been suggested previously in public security discussions in El Salvador. And it had already been abandoned according to the implementation framework of the 1992 peace accord that ended the country’s years-long civil war.
The first time was in 1994, when Hugo Barrera, then vice minister of public security of the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), proposed the creation of armed neighborhood committees. At that time, it was not gangs, but bands of criminal organizations formed in part by former guerrilla and army combatants as well as smugglers, who would later transform into powerful drug trafficking groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel, that were the principal security threat.
Very soon after it was first proposed, executive and legislative officials from El Salvador and others from the United Nations, which at the time was supervising the peace process, abandoned the idea due to the dangerous risk that it would lead to the rise of paramilitary groups in El Salvador.
And in 1995 a paramilitary death squad group arose in the east of the country called “The Black Shadow” (“La Sombra Negra”), made up of former police, military, and other officials. Among them was a deputy police commissioner and former military official who would go on to become mayor of San Miguel, the city that became the group’s center of operations. The Salvadoran justice system attributed 17 homicides to The Black Shadow.
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Some of the officials implicated in this group were later accused of having ties with the Perrones drug trafficking group.
In general, ideas like this one of arming civilians or tolerating actions by paramilitary groups, among others like the proposal to reinstate the death penalty in El Salvador, have formed part of a handbook of populist responses to violence seen in the past three decades. Another example is the “mano dura,” or “iron fist” approach, a public policy adopted between 1999 and 2009 that essentially consisted of temporarily incarcerating hundreds of suspected gang members, resulting in greater criminal sophistication of the MS13 and Barrio 18.
In a country where cycles of violence were further heightened following the country’s 1980-1992 civil war, in which the corruption of public officials has been highlighted as one of the principal causes of impunity (among others by the US State Department), and in which officials of both governing and opposition parties have not hesitated to negotiate votes in exchange for benefits with the same gangs that they so zealously say they want to combat, giving arms to civilians would seem to only add more fuel to the flames of violence.
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