Conference Paper: Panel 630 “Repensando la seguridad desde una perspectiva democrática y de derechos humanos”, 54 International Congress of Americanists
by Susan Hoppert-Flämig, Vienna, 15 – 20 July 2012
The call for security reforms in many countries of the world became louder with the emergence of the Human Security concept in the 1990s. Despite the debates about the concept in academic and policy circles, there is still limited knowledge about what security actually means for state elites outside the Western world and how their understanding of security creates state responses that do not necessarily reduce violence or make people feel secure. This paper aims at understanding state security responses by looking at the attempt of the FMLN Government in El Salvador to establish a policy based on citizen security principles that would differ from the hard line Mano Dura approach of previous governments. Using primary data from El Salvador, two findings will be highlighted: 1. Traditional patterns of security response are shaped by the tendency of Salvadoran state elites to rely on the military as the ultimate guarantor of public order. 2. Traditional patterns of state security provision can persist beyond a change of government, even when that government has a different security approach.
The analysis draws on the criticism about the Human Security concept being a top-down approach and the emerging debates about the need for a bottom-up understanding of security. In a second step, the paper briefly explores how the security policies of past governments failed to address problems of exploding violence and crime in post-war El Salvador. Thirdly, the FMLN Government’s struggle to introduce a new security policy that is based on citizen security principles is examined by analysing the case of the deployment of the military in various prisons. The case study will show how the Government started off with a comprehensive plan to reform the prison system, but then relapsed into traditional restrictive patterns of combatting crime and violence by sending the armed forces. The paper concludes that, while the FMLN Government’s policy cannot be considered a paradigm change in security responses, it represents a serious search for a new security model that is unique in the region.
1. Human Security from Above or Below?
With the emergence of the Human Security concept a new orientation of security based on the vulnerability of individuals was promoted, while concepts that favoured a national, military and state centred idea of security came under criticism (Newman, 2001, Axworthy, 2001). Human Security was initially largely discussed among policy-makers and practitioners, but several strands of critical scholarship have also embraced and debated the concept. At present, there are two major trajectories of criticism to the concept: one is that Human Security became a mainstream umbrella term that is used, and sometimes abused, to justify all sorts of so called humanitarian interventions. Thus, while the concept has raised awareness in the North on the vulnerability of the people in the South, it has not supported their emancipation (Christie, 2010). The second criticism points to the Western centrism of security studies and the export of models of security thinking whose normative underpinning is different and sometimes opposed to the countries in question (Richmond, 2007, Duffield and Waddell, 2007). They fall short of engaging with the very different security situations in the countries of the global South where security institutions evolved in their own social, political and cultural circumstances. Research is only starting to generate alternative theoretical frameworks of notions of (in)security (Bilgin, 2010).
The probably most prominent alternative security approach in Latin America is Citizen Security which, similarly to Human Security has shifted the focus from a national and state centred policy towards the protection of the citizens. While the concept attracted a lot of attention by governmental and non-governmental institutions, it has not developed into an analytical framework. Some scholars take the criticism of the Human Security concept further and argue that the concept departs from a top-down perspective, and does not capture every day experiences of insecurity of dwellers in the South (Lemanski, 2012). They have argued for “security from below” that focuses on the articulation of security needs by communities and local level actors and, by doing so, enhance the participation of these local groups in the development of state security provision (Abello Colak and Pearce, 2009). Nonetheless, state security strategies to “eliminate the broader causes of threat” (Lemanski, 2012: 74) are necessary, which raises the question of how a state security policy that embraces the local citizenship perspective can look like. While research that brings attention to the needs of local dwellers is essential, we also need to understand how security is perceived among state elites. Müller (2012) has criticized that security provision in many parts of the world is analysed through a ‘deficit-list-lense’ as defective and undeveloped. Such a perspective emphasises what security provision is not rather than analysing what it actually is. In that sense, this paper starts unpacking the notion of security in El Salvador as it is. Ideally, this would also include an exploration of the historic and structural context in which security provision was shaped in the past, something that can only be touched on within the scope of this paper and will be examined elsewhere.
The Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) was once an insurgent group and the main opponent of the Salvadoran Government during the civil war from 1980 to 1992. It transformed into a key political party after war, and by winning the presidential elections in 2009 a left-wing party ascended to power for the first time in Salvadoran history. The FMLN’s security concept partially originates from Mesas de Diálogo, local roundtables at various communities throughout the country, where ideas for a better security provision have been gathered prior to the presidential elections. It therefore offers an opportunity to analyse the attempt of transferring security needs from below into a national policy and, even more difficult, actually implementing such a policy. The paper tries to grasp this moment of upheaval that the change of government meant for many Salvadorans, hoping that such a moment is particularly revealing.
2. Violence beyond the Peace Accords: the Failure of the Security Policies of Past Governments
After six decades of military dictatorship and twelve years of civil war in the small Central American country, it was hoped that the peace agreement of 1992 would signal the starting point for an effective transition to peace. As part of the 1992 Peace Accords and under the auspices of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) far reaching reforms were initiated in order to democratise the security sector. Especially the creation of a new civilian police was received with a lot of optimism since it aimed at including ex-combatants from both conflict parties and 60 per cent newly recruited civilians. The agreement also comprised the reduction of military forces by 50 per cent and the dissolution of all paramilitary forces.
Whereas the UN peace operation from 1992 to 1995 has been considered a success within the international community for a long time, many Salvadorans today suffer from great levels of violence. Although the armed conflict between the right-wing government and the FMLN was ended, the country still faces a very tense security situation. Similar to its neighbouring countries Guatemala and Honduras, the escalation of crime and violence poses a huge challenge to the societies. Crime rates increased dramatically after the peace agreement and are still at a high level; problems range from property crime to extortions to large scale money laundering. (Call, 2003, FESPAD, 2003, Arévalo, 2010, World Bank, 2011). A study by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published in 2011, found that after Honduras, El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate in the world (UNODC, 2011). While part of the lethal violence is due to increased drug and weapon trafficking in the Central American corridor, street gang violence also contributes essentially to the high number of homicides (UNODC, 2011). Although state institutions are not infiltrated by illegal networks to the same extend like in Honduras and Guatemala, security and judicial bodies such as the police, prisons, judges and the Public Attorney’s Office are increasingly affected by the passive and active involvement of their members in criminal activities (Farah, 2011).
It is believed that a considerable number of crimes in the country are being organised from detainees who maintain and broaden their networks inside the prisons, not least by the help of corrupt guards. The tense situation at most penitentiaries has been systematically neglected by policy-makers and has deteriorated over the years. Whereas in 2000 7,800 inmates were counted, this number had doubled by 2007 (FLACSO Chile, 2009). In early 2012 over 25,000 prisoners were counted, they shared 8,100 places (OHCHR, 2012). This overpopulation of 300 per cent brings the penitentiary system close to a collapse. The lack of space, recreational activities, sufficiently trained staff and rehabilitation programmes as well as the slow handling of judicial processes lay the ground for even more violence inside and outside the prisons.
It was not until 2003 that the ruling right-wing party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA, 1989-2009) elaborated a security policy that attempted to tackle issues of crime and violence. ARENA’s authoritarian Mano Dura (Iron Fist) approach targeted youth gangs as the source of insecurity and comprised of a one-sided combat of crime via numerous rapid detentions, area sweeps and joint police-military patrols. It mixed the sometimes quite different phenomena of crime, violence and social and physical insecurity and reduced it to a street gang problem. Scholars have criticised the short-term orientation and inadequacy of the measures, given their launch eight months before the national elections in 2003 and the huge publicity for ARENA that accompanied the implementation (Peetz, 2008, Wolf, 2008). The policy largely failed: 95% of all detentions have been dismissed during the first year of Mano Dura without any trial, homicide rates further escalated and the gangs quickly adapted to the new climate of repression by using heavier weaponry, toughing their entry requirements and adopting a more conventional look (Jütersonke et al., 2009, Wolf, 2010). Its impact on the security system was destructive: it blurred the line between military and police tasks and weakened the civil character of the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC, Civil National Police); it contributed to an increased arbitrary use of authority, overpopulated prisons, and overstrained courts (WOLA, 2006, Cruz, 2011). Newly elected President Saca responded to the brutalisation of the gangs with the Super Mano Dura (Super Iron Fist) policy that resulted in an even more violent approach by the security forces. By 2009 the situation was intractable, as Wolf (2010) describes: gangs had sprawled hundreds of marginal urban communities and were deeper involved in organised crime – partly due to their criminalisation and social exclusion.
El Salvador’s political transition and the reforms that followed the Peace Agreement have been examined exhaustively. Part of the reasons for the inability to control crime and violence is found in the shortcomings of the reforms and the peace process which has been analysed in a large body of literature concerning the involvement of the international community, especially the UN, in the peace building process (see for example Doyle et al., 1997, Costa, 1998, Popkin, 2000, Holiday and Stanley, 2000). It opens up a post-war perspective on security, as it deals with the direct consequences of war and highlights problems such as the insufficient reintegration of ex-combatants and the disconnection of socioeconomic and security reforms. Another set of literature identifies institutional dysfunction as the source of failure of security provision. These studies highlight problems after the implementation of the reforms; they give insight into the very practical challenges of building democratic security forces and point to problems such as low salaries and a lack of equipment and training capacities (Call, 1998, Neild, 2002, Call, 2003, Arévalo, 2004). The lessons learnt of these studies contributed to a growing body of literature on security sector reforms and, particularly, police reforms.
The Salvadoran Mano Dura was not a single case; similar approaches mark the security policy of several past and present governments in the region. Various studies, including those explicitly focusing on the phenomenon of gang violence in Central America, characterise these policies as repressive and little comprehensive and advocate for a better inclusion of social policies and a shift towards preventive measures (see for example Jütersonke et al., 2009, Bruneau et al., 2011).
Reading the literature it becomes clear that despite the rather positive circumstances for the transformation of the security system after the war, the state was not able to effectively reduce and control violence in the two post-war decades. Security policy until 2009 has been realised at the expense of democracy. Security and democratisation were considered a set of opposing, incompatible and unrealizable goals. The dramatic increase of crime rates after the Civil War was used to defer further democratisation of the security sector. This perceived dichotomy between security and democratisation re-opened the path for authoritarian decision-making around security issues. The overemphasis on security, on the one hand, permitted the toleration of human rights violations and the use of repressive strategies. On the other hand, the disregard of democratic values in security policy, such as the respect for citizen rights and accountability, resulted in the exclusion of large sectors of the population from state protection. In this sense, the role of security institutions such as the police and the penal system was perverted. Instead of strengthening its democratic impetus, old patterns of repressive and clientelistic policing and prison management persisted.
3. The FMLN Government Between Prevention and Repression
As an opposition party, the FMLN criticised the right-wing Mano Dura approach, but it was slow in developing its own security agenda. However, as the prospect party in Government it was forced to address the issue and claimed to approach security differently from previous governments by applying a more comprehensive and long-term focused policy that included preventive measures, rehabilitation and support for victims.
The FMLN Government’s security policy is articulated in the Política Nacional de Justicia, Seguridad Pública y Convivencia (National Policy of Justice, Public Security and Living together, hereafter PJSC). This paper partially originates in a process of creating the FMLN’s vision of citizen security prior to the presidential elections in a participatory manner in numerous round tables at local communities, gathering problems and requests from citizens and developing proposals on how to improve their security situation. A number of governmental and non-governmental experts and advisors merged these views into a national vision of citizen security that forms the PJSC. It consists of five key aspects: a) controlling crime, b) social prevention of violence and crime, c) rehabilitation and reintegration, d) attention to victims, and e) institutional and legal reforms. These aspects were to be realised through various programmes such as a better inclusion of local communities, an arms control programme, alternative conflict resolution programmes, or trainings for staff at health centres to better attend victims of violence, to mention but a few. For the first time in history, prevention became a key concern of the security approach. Controlling crime and violence in the sense of the PJSC aimed at modernizing the police’s investigative and intelligence units as well as reducing practices of impunity among the judicial system in order to be able to control the two issues that were perceived as major threats to public security: organised crime and street gangs. With the PJSC the FMLN Government established its position by recognizing the need for a long-term policy of social prevention (prevención social del delito) along with the need for immediate action to control crime and violence (represión del delito). During the first months after President Funes’ inauguration, the budget for the Ministry of Justice and Public Security was increased significantly in order to start with the new programmes. Along with the replacement of personnel in key government positions, in the police and in prison management, new institutions for a better co-ordination of the comprehensive policy were created, such as the prevention cabinet and the security cabinet; the latter comprised of key policy makers of the security system and representatives from the main security institutions.
In practice, creating a balance between prevention and repression proved to be very difficult. While institutional reforms and new programmes were being introduced and established, they could not reduce violence immediately. Since the inauguration of President Funes in June 2009 until March 2012, the homicide rate increased to 12 murders per day which raised the annual average to 76 per 100,000 inhabitants (Contrapunto, 01/01/2012). The FMLN’s coming to power did not automatically change the historically rooted oligarchic structures of the country’s economy, and the enormous economic and political weight of El Salvador’s business sector continues to impact upon the security decision-making process. In alliance with the powerful business sector, the political Right opposed many of the Government’s security proposals. It did not acknowledge the FMLN’s attempts for immediate action to control crime at the beginning of the legislature period. Using the power of public media, for the opposition parties as well as for large parts of the business sector it was convenient to mark the FMLN’s policy as a soft hand approach that could be blamed for the apparently uncontrollable violence. Along with the further increasing homicide rate, public demands for immediate solutions and the vast spread of aggressive transnational criminal networks this put enormous pressure on the Funes Government. This pressure partly explains why the Government was tending towards repressive measures later in the legislature period.
4. Sending the Armed Forces to Salvadoran Prisons: A Relapse into Old Patterns of Security Responses
In October 2009 a presidential decree was passed to extend the tasks of the armed forces in public security, which paved the way for soldiers patrolling the street – in theory together with the police, but military patrols without the PNC are a reality. In May 2010 a legislative decree followed which allowed for the deployment of the armed forces in penitentiaries. Between May and September 2010 plans of introducing a new anti-gang law provoked enormous resistance among the gangs. Killings of bus drivers and passengers and the threat of more violence, should the law pass, virtually paralysed public transport. Revolts of gang members in nine prisons made it very difficult to keep control of the prison system. The law that resembled anti-gang strategies of previous governments by criminalising gang membership and extending penalties was still implemented; and the Government refused to negotiate with the two major gangs or to include them in any form in the political process. During these months it became clear that the Governments’ public security approach would not be the turnaround in security provision as it had been expected. While the trend developed towards repressive measures, it also appeared that the Funes Administration was neither following the PJSC plans nor any other noticeable strategy.
With the legislative decree from May 2010, the Legislative Assembly decided on the deployment of soldiers in nine out of 19 prisons as a temporary measure for one year in order to control the entrance and exit of prisoners, visitors, and goods as well as the periphery of the prisons. Not only were corruption among prison staff, overpopulation and the large-scale coordination of extortions by inmates bringing the prison system near to a collapse; the increasing number of revolts of imprisoned gang members with lethal consequences fuelled the public impression that the state was not in control of the penitentiaries.
The deployment of the armed forces in prisons clearly contradicts the original security strategy of the Government; it was a reaction to the imminent escalation of the situation. The decision-making process appears to be reactive, little transparent and on short notice: the decision was justified with the need to counterbalance the scarcity of prison personnel and to allow for the re-organisation of guards which included the purge of corrupt staff and the training of new personnel. This justification seems peculiar, given that problems of corruption and insufficiently trained staff were well known for a long time and measures to deal with them have been developed according to the PJSC, for example a serious improvement of the penitentiary school. Other new initiatives like rehabilitation programmes and the Mesa Penitenciaria, a roundtable with family members of prisoners, NGOs and Government representatives were neglected in the light of the Government’s “fire fighting” policy. After the initial period of six months, the measure has been prolonged twice without any noticeable public debate or caveats either from the FMLN, or the public, and has been extended to eleven prisons. The renewal was not sanctioned by the Legislative Assembly, and only based on a presidential decree. The reasons are unclear, but it shows that a significant decision was made top-down without even consulting the parliament. In March 2012 the military was suddenly withdrawn from all prisons, and again this decision did not follow any strategy nor did it include a consultation of the prison management. It clearly did not take into consideration whether there was enough newly trained staff.
It is contested whether civil prison staff benefited from the military’s support or whether it actually complicated their work even more. The legal degree from May 2010 set the military’s role as a supportive force under the civil authority of the Prisons’ General Directorate. In practice, the collaboration between both sides has been perceived as very difficult by prison authorities who felt constrained in their daily work by the armed forces and cautiously expressed concerns about the armed forces not being trained for the work in prisons. Their ‘conquer or die’ mentality also stands in contrast to the values of human rights and dignity that the penitentiary school is at least trying to establish as the foundation of the education of the new guards. External observers named the problems more frankly: with the armed forces taking control of the prison gates they started setting their own rules of who could enter and exit, including human rights observers, attorneys and social workers. That way, the military undermined civil control in two ways: Firstly, they did not subordinate themselves under the General Directorate – the responsible state authority – as envisaged in the decree. Secondly, they controlled that part of the civil society that was supposed to control the work of the state authority and the military, mainly human rights observers and social workers from churches and NGOs, but also representatives from the state’s human rights ombuds office, the Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (PDDH). The armed forces soon dominated the scene guided by their own leadership, the Commando San Carlos. However, their presence did not reduce the high number of extortions that, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, are frequently organised from inside the prisons using smuggled in mobile phones (La Prensa Gráfica, 18/11/2010).
The military’s presence also caused a lot of problems for the prisoners and their family members. Grave human rights violations committed by soldiers especially against female visitors (who represent the majority of visitors) during intimate physical examinations have been repeatedly reported (Contrapunto, 27/07/10). Prison staff also observed that fewer family members would visit their relatives in prison while the armed forces were controlling the gates as they would not want to undergo the rigorous and abasing physical examination. This did not only cause psychological stress among the inmates; many prisoners also depend on their relatives’ visits as they bring daily goods like food, clothes and money. Children were generally not allowed to visit their parents in prison during that period.
In addition, a restrictive dress code made the visitors recognizable in public on the day of the visit. Since it is well known that many prisoners are gang members, this implied a stigmatization of family members of prisoners on there often long journey to the prisons. At the bottom of this stigmatization is the social conception of prisons as ‘lost ground’: although the severity of crime varies significantly among inmates and by far not all of them are convicted, prisons have the reputation of gathering ‘evil’ people. This form of social exclusion is probably also true for other parts of the world, but sending the armed forces in, reinforced the fatale belief that security for a society can be achieved by combatting its marginalised parts.
So far, the FMLN Government was not able to realise its original plans to establish parity between repressive and preventive measures. The situation described above demonstrates how the FMLN Government did not take into account the needs of those being affected by their decision to deploy the armed forces – prisoners, their family members, and prison staff. In various cases the measure even exposed them to arbitrary physical violence. It restricted the rule of law by hampering the work of attorneys, human rights observers and social workers, and extortion rates did not diminish at all. It did thus not help to make people feel more secure.
The Government’s initial intention of turning the public security paradigm around and introduce a policy based on respect for citizens, inclusiveness, and participation was thwarted by the decision of deploying the armed forces.
There are several reasons for the Government’s shift towards a repressive policy: the lack of local professionals with the necessary experience in preventive policy; political pressure from the Right and the business sector; the ideological debates between the Left and the Right that impede the realisation of a common security strategy; political pressure from the United States to combat drug trafficking going through the Central American corridor; and the involvement of politicians and security forces in organised crime. The Government also made the mistake to overemphasise prevention by representing it as the big alternative to Mano Dura; it soon became a buzzword that often was used with a limited understanding of the term. This not only made the Funes Administration lose political credibility but also made people lose faith in a security model that differed from Mano Dura.
The given example shows that security provision still relies on the military. In a tense political situation it seems much easier for a government to resort to those models of security provision that dominated in the past. Until 1989, El Salvador was governed by militaries, and it was only with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992 that the military’s function was curbed to external defence. This was an important moment since it meant the end of militarism. However, the militaristic culture continues to exist, and under the civil ARENA Government, the response to public insecurity was a military-style combat of crime and violence that included the active participation of soldiers in patrols and raids. This pattern continues under the FMLN Government that massively extended the tasks of the armed forces in public security. Surprisingly, prioritising a militaristic option is not an exclusive matter of one political fraction: while ARENA and the military were close allies in the past, the FMLN now ultimately relies on its former enemy to guarantee the maintenance of public order. In addition, there is high level of public approval for the military to handle public security issues, despite the fact that many people suffered under the military’s violence during the war. This leads to the conclusion that traditional patterns of state security provision can persist beyond a change of government, even when the new government has a different security approach. It then raises the question how this pattern is reproduced, a question that requires further research on the constitution of the state.
At the same time, the attempt of FMLN to develop a security policy that is based on the needs of its citizens has to be acknowledged. As one of the few leftist governments in Latin America with an elaborated strategy of public security, the FMLN was working on a real alternative to the authoritarian responses to crime and violence in the region.
In March 2012 it became public that the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, had negotiated a truce, mediated by a military chaplain and a former FMLN combatant, and with the involvement of the Government. Since then, homicide rates dropped significantly by 50 per cent which is a huge relieve for the Salvadoran society (El Faro, 17/06/12). However, the conditions of the truce are not fully known and contradicting declarations were released by members of the Government. The process lacks transparency and a coherent strategy which makes the truce fragile. Despite its positive effects, the truce itself does not represent a turnaround in security provision. However, the truce offers a unique window of opportunity to reconsider security responses. After prevention has been considered to have failed, there now is a debate taking place about reinsertion of gang members into the society. There is the danger that, similar to the concept of prevention, the idea of reinsertion will be overused and underestimated, but there is also the possibility that the debate continues as what the FMLN had started: the search for a new security model.
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 In fact, El Salvador already had a civil government since 1989 with the election of the Right-wing party ARENA. However, ARENA had close ties with the military.
 Statistics vary significantly, depending on the sources. Most of the data used in different studies comes from the PNC, the Public Attorney’s Office, the Institute for Forensic Medicine (IML) and the Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC).
 Honduras was found to have 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador 66 per 100,000. In the case of El Salvador, data was provided by the Police and refers to 2010. In comparison, the U.K. has an annual rate of 1.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.
 While some street gangs are involved in organised crime, they are not necessarily identical with large-scale transnational criminal networks.
 Decreto No. 70 de la Casa Presidencial, 30 October 2009.
 Decreto No. 371 de la Asamblea Legislativa, 27 May 2010.
 The director of one of the country’s largest prisons stated that he was informed about the measure two days before the armed forces withdrew. Interview on 16 April 2012. Although difficult to prove, it is conceivable that the withdrawal was part of a deal that led to a gang truce in March 2012.
 Interview with a prison director on 16 April 2012 and with a member of staff at the Dirección General de Centros Penales, on 27 March 2012.
 Interview with Rosa Elena Ramos, PDDH, on 26 March 2012 and Mauricio Figueroa, Fundación Quetzalcoatl, on 15 March 2012.
 Interview with Counsellor Gerardo Alegría, PDDH, 21 March 2012; interview with Nelson Flores, Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD), 26 March 2012; Informe de la PDDH No. PADCI/001/2011, 3 January 2011.
 Interview with a prison’s Sub-Director for Security, 13 April 2012.
 All visitors had to be dressed in white and wear open sandals; women had to wear a skirt, and were not allowed to wear any jewellery or nail polish.
 The Salvadoran Truth Commission Report found that state security forces were responsible for 85% of the human rights violations committed during the war. See: From madness to hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: report of the Commission on the Truth in El Salvador (1993).
 In a news article published by the online newspaper El Faro in September 2012 the involvement and leading role of the Government in brokering the truce has been frankly admitted for the first time by the Minister of Justice and Public Security. See EL FARO 11/09/12. La nueva verdad sobre la tregua entre pandillas, available at: http://www.salanegra.elfaro.net/es/201209/cronicas/9612/, accessed 13/09/12.