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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 179 | Junio 1996
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El Salvador

The Challenge of Crime

So far this year there have been 22 deaths daily, product of criminal violence. If the tendency keeps up till the end of the 90s, crime will have caused more deaths than twelve bloody years of war.

Carlos G. Ramos

One of the most serious problems facing El Salvador today is the disproportionate growth of criminal activity. In this sense, it is similar to its neighbors throughout Central America. By 1992, the year the peace accords were signed, surveys done by different institutions showed that crime had become one of the population's most pressing concerns.

Crime rates are going up year by year, a fact no one can dispute. But the most serious issue is the kind and level of violence used in committing the crimes and the development of advanced logistical and organizational networks in the hands of the criminals. National discussion of the problem does not focus on this aspect,

Many, including those in government spheres, feel that the problem was to be expected in the aftermath of over a decade of war. But nobody, and certainly not those in government, seemed concerned with designing preventive measures that could help prevent this "predictable" problem from completely overwhelming both the country's citizens and the institutional capacity to deal with it.

Four years after the signing of the peace accords, the urgent need to put a brake on crime is putting some of the gains made in the process of institutional democratization at risk. The state is also evading its responsibility for defining a serious and adequate anti crime policy, essentially throwing the ball into the court of the police. All this jeopardizes the actual putting into practice of new laws, which up to now have been reactive and superficial.

Much Has Changed

Many things have changed in El Salvador since the signing of the peace accords, but not all those changes are oriented toward democratizing the country, as some might think. The escalation of the crime rate is one sign among many of these novelties not included in the negotiated transition. While the war developed in a context of social polarization, the post accord stage has evolved in a framework of societal fracturing and decomposition. Official statistics reflecting the crime upswing are truly alarming. It is estimated that in recent years, the average number of homicides has jumped to some 8,000 a year. In 1995, the Attorney General reported 8,485 murders, 16,812 people wounded, 126 kidnappings, 3,650 threats and intimidations and 1,666 sexual crimes.

The Institute of Legal Medicine reported that it had removed 1,988 corpses between January and March 1996, which translates into an average of 22 violent deaths every day. If this trend remains stable or, even worse, actually climbs, more people will have died due to violent crimes by the end of the decade than were killed in the twelve bloody years of war.

An Unusual Work Stoppage

In such a serious context triggered by the crime wave, March began with an extremely unusual event.A self proclaimed Committee in Defense of Usulután, made up of well known businessmen from the department, announced a stoppage of all commercial activity for May 14.The idea was conceived of as a way to pressure the government to attend to Usulután, considered one of the departments most affected by crime.

This moved the issue of public security from daily news notes in the papers to the front burner of political debate in the country. It also sparked a novel hub of popular mobilization whose full potential is just beginning to be discovered.

In the days following the proclamation from Usulután, business and agricultural sectors from San Vicente, San Miguel, Morazán, La Unión, Sonsonate, Santa Ana and Zacatecoluca, as well as the Salvadoran Society of Merchants and Industrialists, all voiced their support for the Usulután measure. Even though the line and actions taken by these businessmen was clearly articulated, the nature and purposes of their decision were not as clear. Both the announcement and the carrying out of the stoppage were accompanied by a series of elements that lead one to think that more than just public security is at stake. For the large scale agricultural producers, cattle ranchers and merchants who headed up the stoppage, the common crime that smaller businessmen as well as the population in general complain of is not the central problem. Of more concern to them is the incidence of kidnappings, blackmail and other criminal activities carried out by well organized groups growing directly out of the military structures that were not totally dismantled in the wake of the peace accords. The concern of these large producers is understandable. It is known that, so far this year, at least 20 people have been kidnapped, some of them from prominent business or political families.

The first element to take into account occurred in the context of the announcement of this commercial stoppage. On March 8, apparently unlinked to the stoppage, Salvadoran newspapers published an anonymous communiqué from the department of San Miguel directed to the President. It warned that if the government did not take responsibility for applying the law and thus alleviating the terror under which the eastern sector of the country must live, "we will feel cornered and cannot say what measures we may have to take". Visibly annoyed, President Calderón Sol responded that his government will be "energetic and hard line" with those who disobey the law and will not accept "threats or blackmail" from anyone. "Let those who have `black shadow' intentions be warned," he said, "that the full weight of the law will also fall upon them, because nobody can take justice into their own hands."

ARENA's Marginalized

The conflicts in this open confrontation between the President and the business sector from the east were not few or unimportant. In fact, the day after the business strike, a number of functionaries, including the Director of the Police, the Minister of Security and the Minister of the Interior, traveled to the eastern zones, particularly Usulután. After speaking with the businessmen, they congratulated them for their initiative in joining the fight against crime. Whether this visit was a way to smooth over the rough edges created by the current situation, or was just an expression of differing governmental positions is difficult to know. What is clear is that, despite the visit by the government functionaries, Pedro Martínez, president of the committee that had organized the stoppage, declared days later that another stoppage would take place if no government response was forthcoming within 30 days. A second element to reflect upon comes from within the business sector itself. The Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce and Industry did not support the action taken by those in Usulután. Instead, it called for calm and wisdom in the interest of a dialogue to seek a joint solution to the problem. According to Ricardo Simán, the president of the Chamber, the stoppage would only further polarize the situation. Ulises González, president of the Productive Sector of the East, in turn, rejected the Chamber's position. In an unusual attitude, the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) decided to neither support nor openly reject the actions taken by the Usulután producers. At least publicly, its enigmatic position toward the problem was not to take a position. A final fact that must also be recognized for any analysis is the composition of the business sectors involved in the stoppage. It was fundamentally a group of agriculturalists and cattle ranchers, joined by the zone's commercial and transport sectors. But some other personalities were curious additions to the stoppage, including Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro, former Supreme Court president and member of ARENA. Though he is not from Usulután and does not belong to the committee, Gutiérrez Castro appeared as one of the most active "verifiers" of the stoppage's effectiveness. Those heading up the action belong to one of the business sectors hardest hit by the war, least favored by state policies and generally marginalized from both party and government spheres of power today, Mainly linked to the origins of ARENA, the governing party, their discontent is an expression of feeling distanced from the party by powerful technocrats with no party history. They are also expressing serious frustration because of the governmental promises left unfulfilled, above all the pardon of agricultural debts.

ARENA's Hardliners

The presence in Usulután of the former Supreme Court president, one of the ultra right's leading exponents and a man with clear electoral ambitions, was not gratuitous. In fact, ARENA is only months away from internally defining its candidates for national deputies and mayors in the March 1997 elections, and the internal struggle to establish new correlations of power has already begun.

In 1994, Ulises González surprised ARENA by pacting with the Christian Democrats (PDC) around his potential run for the vice presidency. It was a clear expression of discontent on the part of ARENA's agricultural sector, particularly in the eastern part of the country, springing largely from the abandonment of the sector as a result of the Cristiani administration's policies, and the few hopes that a new ARENA government offered them. After negotiations with the PDC, González declined its candidacy, leaving it holding the bag of the public announcement just one more conflict among the many to which that party has become accustomed. The commercial stoppage in Usulután would also seem to have a dimension of intraparty conflict to it. The eastern businessmen understand their importance to making the electoral machinery run properly. It is they, not the technocrats ensconced in the government apparatus, who guarantee that the electoral base will actually get out and vote.

It is no secret that, for some time now, a conflict has been brewing within ARENA around which leader best represents the party's tradition, who most embodies the spirit of nationalism originally expressed by Major Roberto d'Aubuisson. Former President Cristiani himself was once accused of not coming from the true ARENA tradition. It is difficult to determine the degree to which the recent business demonstrations reflect this ongoing dispute. Everything seems to indicate that the stoppage combined a civic response to the criminal escalation with political action linked to both party based conflicts and the weak attention the government has given the agricultural sector.

A mere five days after the stoppage in Usulután, in the wake of a pressured and irresponsible process of discussing draft legislation, the National Assembly pushed through the Transitory Law Against Delinquency and Organized Crime, to offer a response and solution to the problem. All the Assembly's different factions voted in favor with the exception of the FMLN. There is no doubt that such haste sharply contrasts with the stagnant will to ratify the 14 electoral reforms derived from the commitments made in the peace accords. At this writing, those commitments are still pending. The approved legislation directly contravenes constitutional precepts and international treaties that El Salvador has signed, as has been clearly evidenced by legal suits filed. A more serious project, known as the Law of Social Defense, which could have plunged the country into a virtual state of siege, was shelved. The courts have proven reticent to apply the new norms, coinciding with the belief that they contradict constitutional principles and, in some cases, because they generate new or greater problems. The UN Secretary General, meanwhile, stated in his last report on El Salvador that the new legislation goes against the democratization process.

Just the Tip Of the Iceberg

In spite of four years of supposed re education for democracy, elite leaders continue demonstrating high levels of political, personal and institutional irresponsibility. According to declarations by the Social Christian Renovation Party, a split from the PDC, voting against this legislation could lead the population to reject it as well. This belief made them vote for it even though they disagreed with aspects of it. A long road has yet to be traveled before it can be assumed that politicians are not only recipients of the needs and demands of the citizenry as a whole, but even more importantly, should play the role of forming and guiding public opinion regarding the problems facing the community. Only in this way can solutions be correctly found.

The new legislation represents one of the best expressions of the superficial character of government responses to the diverse problems facing Salvadoran society. The body of the law is clearly aimed at criminalizing the vulnerable sectors and attacking only the tip of the iceberg of criminal activity. By pursuing only the most visible and daily expressions of conduct arbitrarily considered sociopathic, the law seems geared to generating the impression that action is being taken against crime, It is so reactive and superficial, however, that, after being in effect for over a month, the head of police operations, Roland García, recognized that crime levels had not diminished at all.

The phenomenon of the increasingly active gangs in the country has become the central focus of public security today. But any moderately serious analysis of these gangs would soon show that, while action clearly must be taken around this complex generational phenomenon, the central hub of criminal activity in El Salvador is not found in these gangs. It is rather found in solid organizational structures dedicated to carrying out the most varied range of crimes. These structures seem, at least in some cases, to be able to rely on the complicity or connivance of highly placed individuals, an accusation that even the Ministry of Public Security has made on more than one occasion.

The law is also a good expression of the trend back toward authoritarianism that has been established in the political process for some time now. The new law works against the still incipient modernization of the country's legal and institutional apparatuses, and even affects the presumption of innocence by criminalizing misdemeanors not crimes and ratifying extralegal declarations as proof. An expression of all this is the fact that imprisonment is understood as a preferred measure in the application of justice, rather than as an exceptional one.

Finally, the new norm is not only showing signs of being unable to resolve any problems, but has in fact quickly created new and dangerous ones. The greatest of these new problems is the saturation of prison capacity and subsequent closing of penal centers that refuse to take in new prisoners. On April 28, 8 out of 16 centers decided not to accept new prisoners. This led the judges to return the prisoners to the jail cells in a number of police posts, from whence they had originally come. But these cells had themselves been quickly filled and are no longer accepting returned prisoners.

Where will so many detained people be housed? This has become a problem as complex for the police and those entrusted with applying justice as the criminal activity itself. The capacity of prisons has been exceeded by over 200%, according to the directors.The total population in prison is now some 8,700, of whom 24% are convicted prisoners, while the rest are awaiting sentencing.What is the solution? Any Salvadoran response today must take the issue of a regional coordination to heart. It is not an issue only for El Salvador. In the 1980s, all of Central America was converted into a free arms market that nobody today can control.It has also become a drug corridor, with the complicity of some armies, or at least some of their commanding officers. The solution must be something that all of us, as Central Americans, arrive at in the most creative way possible.

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