Police in El Salvador say that a legal technicality is preventing them from holding private security agencies accountable for offenses they commit, highlighting the difficulty of ensuring sufficient oversight of private security bodies in Latin America.
More than 450 private security agencies in El Salvador are operating illegally and have not renewed their authorization papers in order to continue operating, La Prensa Gráfica reported.
However, a technicality in the Private Security Services Law is preventing El Salvador's National Police from exercising its role as the body charged with overseeing private security companies.
According to La Prensa Gráfica, under Salvadoran law, private security agencies can be sanctioned with fines ranging from the equivalent of two to 10 minimum wages for minor offenses, and 11 to 60 minimum wages for serious offenses. But the law does not specify if the minimum wages pertain to the commerce, service or industry sector.
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Authorities say that because of this discrepancy, not one private security agency has been sanctioned to date.
The police recently sanctioned one private security agency for failing to report stolen or lost weapons and not keeping proper work logs, among other things. However, the company appealed the case, alleging that the fine was illegal because it violated the "principles of legal security" due to the "non-existence of the general regulation" of the Private Security Services Law. A judge subsequently ruled in the company's favor, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
El Salvador Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has since called for reforms to the Private Security Services Law.
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The inability of the Salvadoran police to regulate private security companies is perhaps unsurprising, given the challenges the force has faced in terms of holding its own officers to account for a range of griveous abuses including extralegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings. Nevertheless, it is particularly concerning given recent calls by officials like Meléndez for private security services to assist the police amid a worsening security situation in the country.
Unregulated private security agencies -- which are incentivized to protect only the private interests of those paying them -- have been a source of violence elsewhere in the region, suggesting that their deepened involvement in public security functions in El Salvador may actually exacerbate rather than ameliorate the security situation.
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Indeed, private security agencies in Guatemala have been accused of everything from extrajudicial killings and purchasing illegally trafficked firearms to providing weapons and ammunition to alleged gang members. Private security firms in Rio de Janeiro have also been identified as being a key source of weapons for the city's criminals.