Authorities in El Salvador are considering implementing a state of exception that would suspend certain constitutional rights as the country's security crisis continues to worsen, raising questions about the legality and ultimate efficacy of such a move.
On March 8, El Salvador's Supreme Court, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and lawmakers considered a plan to implement a state of exception in the country's most violent municipalities, reported La Página. The proposed state of exception would likely affect at least ten municipalities, including the capital city of San Salvador.
If implemented, the state of exception would provide authorities with broad powers to suppress public meetings, restrict freedom of movement, and monitor mail, e-mail, telephone, and social media communications.
El Salvador's constitution permits authorities to declare a state of exception under conditions of war, invasion, uprising, sedition, or "grave disturbances to public order." According to El Diaro de Hoy, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly must approve such a decision.
Congressman Guillermo Gallegos, of the GANA political party, spoke in favor of the proposed measure, telling La Página that communities "should have the legal tools needed to respond to threats from criminal groups."
In contrast, leader of the conservative ARENA party, Jorge Velado, said he has "serious doubts about whether this proposed state of emergency is really about fighting crime," suggesting it might be an attempt by Cerén to silence criticism of his administration.
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El Salvador's violence levels rapidly deteriorated during 2015, and the country finished the year with a homicide rate of over 100 per 100,000 citizens, the highest in the world. Acute violence levels have continued into 2016, with around 1,400 homicides committed during January and February -- an average of one every hour.
In recent days, official rhetoric towards insecurity has taken on an increasingly defiant tone, with President Cerén declaring that "war" was the only option left for managing the country's gang problem. Nonetheless, Cerén asserted that violence in El Salvador is a "structural problem" that "will not be resolved overnight."
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This understanding of the country's violence problem as a chronic, long-term condition is somewhat at odds with the idea of a state of exception, generally considered a tool for managing acute crises or sudden onset emergencies. Regionally, recent states of exception have been declared in Venezuela, in response to a border crisis with Colombia, and in Peru, in response to rising criminality along the coast. Both measures received criticism for failing to address root causes or provide long-term relief.
Moreover, the legality of whether current conditions in El Salvador meet the standards outlined in the constitution for when a state of exception can be declared is an open question. Yet this is not the first time that Sánchez Cerén's administration has sought to apply existing legal tools in new ways to address the gang problem. In August 2015, then Attorney General Luis Martinez began trying gang members under anti-terrorism statutes. While challenged in court, those efforts were ultimately ruled constitutional.