A new report says that the United States funded an elite unit of El Salvador’s national police that committed egregious abuses of force including extrajudicial killings, underscoring flaws in the North American nation’s process of vetting units receiving security assistance.
The elite Special Reaction Force (Fuerza Especializada de Reacción – FES) of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil - PNC) received “significant US funding” despite allegedly being responsible for the murder of 43 suspected gang members through the first six months 2017, according to an exclusive report from CNN.
Sources consulted by CNN confirmed that the elite FES unit was the recipient of an unknown portion of the more than $140 million in security assistance that the United States provided to El Salvador in the last two years.
The FES was disbanded earlier this year and replaced with another specialized force known as the Specialized Police Tactical Unit (Unidad Táctica Especializada Policial – UTEP), also known as the Jaguars. But according to CNN, many former FES members were never investigated for these alleged abuses and joined the Jaguars elite force, which also receives US funding.
(Graphic courtesy of CNN)
In August 2017, an investigation by the Salvadoran magazine Factum first identified four FES agents who allegedly committed at least three extrajudicial executions, among other crimes.
The investigation also revealed that the officers in question were using social media to coordinate and discuss extrajudicial killings, as well as how to stage a crime scene to make an execution look like a confrontation, among other things.
However, officials in El Salvador at the time failed to take decisive action in response to the allegations. And in the wake of CNN’s report, Deputy Police Commissioner Karla Andrade rejected the claim that members of the country’s police force executed suspected gang members.
“In the first place, the National Civil Police does not execute gang members, and I want to emphasize that. The police do not execute gang members, they don’t execute anyone. That is not the correct term because … that is not our constitutional mission,” Andrade said at a press conference.
A spokesperson for the US embassy in El Salvador told CNN that the US government takes the allegations "extremely seriously," and that it has "consistently expressed concerns regarding allegations of security force abuses, the need for accountability, and the critical role of rights-respecting security forces in a healthy democracy."
InSight Crime sought comment from the embassy as well as the State Department, but did not recieve a response.
InSight Crime Analysis
The allegations of extrajudicial executions committed by security force units receiving US funding raise serious questions about the process of vetting such units and the enforcement of laws designed to prevent them from receiving aid -- particularly since the United States provides security assistance to many forces across Latin America and around the world with poor records in terms of human rights and corruption.
A federal statute known as the Leahy Law bars the US government from providing security assistance to foreign military or police forces when there is “credible information” that the unit has committed human rights abuses. However, efforts to enforce the law often fall short, in part due to the low priority placed on the vetting process and the lack of resources allocated to it.
Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Latin America Working Group, told InSight Crime that the law is a “basic tool” to screen out abusive security forces that “really does not screen out all of the bad actors or necessarily get at the systemic issues.”
US officials did not need to look hard to find "credible information" that Salvadoran security forces were engaged in serious human rights abuses. Indeed, multiple sources told InSight Crime that they raised the issue in meetings with State Department officials as far back as 2016. (The sources requested anonymity because the meetings were off the record.)
Allegations of death squad-style activities were also made in public reports around that time. But sources told InSight Crime that US officials simply brushed off the claims and attributed the killings to the country's gangs.
Since then, evidence has continued to mount implicating Salvadoran security forces in extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual assault and other serious crimes.
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The US failure to closely monitor the Salvadoran units to which it provided training and assistance is part of a broader pattern that extends beyond Latin America.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has reportedly expressed concerns about potential violations of the law bearing his name in the case of US funding to Egypt. And a report by an internal US military watchdog released earlier this year found evidence of Leahy Law violations in the provision of US security assistance in Afghanistan.
Haugaard told InSight Crime that even though the abuses in El Salvador have been widely-known and well-reported, “the problems are so pervasive that it’s not surprising that forces violating basic human rights norms are receiving US funding.”
“Not only does the Leahy Law need to be implemented much more vigorously, but when there is evidence that systemic abuses are happening and the government is failing to address them, security assistance should be suspended," Haugaard told InSight Crime.