By sentencing four police officers involved in extrajudicial executions, authorities in El Salvador may be sending a message about their willingness to address internationally scrutinized police violence, but the root causes of the problem continue unabated.
On June 22, El Salvador’s Attorney General announced that four members of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) were sentenced to 60 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
The convictions were for crimes that occurred on February 13, 2017, in the town of San Pedro Masahuat, in the department of La Paz. Two civilians died in what the police had described as a chase and confrontation with gang members. However, the court concluded that the confrontation never happened, and that the narrative was used to cover up extrajudicial killings.
The Attorney General’s Office also stated that it will investigate the possible participation of other agents mentioned by witnesses but not yet considered in the case.
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InSight Crime Analysis
The international community has been scrutinizing El Salvador due to multiple accusations of police participation in massacres and extrajudicial executions.
Several international experts from the United Nations have publicly denounced the rights violations, and just a few weeks ago CNN revealed that the United States financed an elite police unit involved in the same types of abuses.
The recent convictions of police officers for extrajudicial executions are undeniably significant, positive steps and could be a message from Salvadoran judicial authorities to the national and international public that they are indeed addressing the problem.
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However, the effect these convictions will have on ending police violence remains to be seen, especially given that it is rooted in a standard government practice of using “mano dura,” or zero-tolerance measures to combat gangs.
In a February interview with InSight Crime, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Agnes Callamard said that the use of excessive force by security forces is facilitated by a context of impunity and by an inability to bring corruption cases to justice.
“Ultimately it is about providing good evidence, having judges that are not afraid of indicting police officers, protecting these judges [when they make] very unpopular decisions,” said Callamard.
So far, authorities in El Salvador have only prosecuted the direct actors in extrajudicial executions. But they continue to fall short when it comes to investigating higher-ranking officials also involved in abuses.