A recent public opinion poll demonstrates generally positive perceptions of police conduct in El Salvador, even as hard-line policies against gangs have led to concerns over official misconduct and human rights abuses.
The study, conducted by the social investigation unit of Salvadoran news outlet La Prensa Gráfica, found 54 percent of Salvadorans hold a positive opinion of the country's National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). In contrast, 21 percent of respondents judged the PNC's performance to be poor or very poor.
The findings -- the result of 1,200 interviews with citizens throughout the country -- are similar to La Prensa Gráfica's 2015 poll, which found 52 percent held positive opinions of the PNC while 22 percent had negative views.
The aspect of the PNC's work citizens found most positive was "continuous patrols," at 13 percent, followed by good job performance and protecting the community. Among the PNC's characteristics citizens found most negative were: corruption, delayed response to emergencies and abuse of authority.
Overall, 37 percent of respondents felt corruption within the PNC was high or very high, while 32 percent considered it to be low or very low, La Prensa Gráfica found.
When asked if they had ever received direct assistance from the PNC, 20 percent of respondents said yes. Another 16 percent, however, reported suffering some form of abuse at the hands of the PNC, including physical or verbal mistreatment. This represented a 5 percent increase over 2015.
InSight Crime Analysis
Over the last year, El Salvador has increasingly ramped up security crackdowns in response to escalated violence and gang activity. This has included deploying elite units consisting of both police and military to target and combat criminal structures throughout the country. Earlier this year, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly reclassified the country's gangs as terrorist organizations.
However, such heightened police activity, and the militarization of internal security, have given rise to human rights concerns. A number of instances have arisen where police are implicated in the extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.
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Nonetheless, the views of everyday Salvadorans often get lost among the frequent stories documenting police abuses in El Salvador and officers' seemingly blatant disregard for human life. A reason tough "mano dura" (iron fist) anti-crime policies have been implemented by successive administrations in El Salvador -- despite evidence suggesting their ineffectiveness over the long term -- is their popularity.
It may be images of police anti-crime operations, including the mass roundup of suspects and imprisonment of alleged gang members, assuage citizens' concerns about the precarious security situation, outweighing perceptions of police misconduct. Indeed, despite a string of cases involving police abusing their power over the past year, La Prensa Gráfica's poll found positive perceptions of police increased during that period.