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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Marcela Sanchez: Central America Seeks US Help Against Crime

By Marcela Sanchez

The cell phone has proven to be the weapon of choice for gang members serving time in El Salvador's prisons. By phoning threats to Salvadorans at home and in the U.S., last year gang members funneled into prisons between $750,000 and $800,000 dollars, illicit profits of extortion that corrupt the correctional system from within.

Efforts to block all cellular calls from the prisons have been circumvented by complicit prison officials. And while 1855 cell phones were confiscated last year, many more have found there way in, sometimes stashed in soccer balls skillfully kicked over the prison walls to inmates waiting within.

The situation has become such a liability for Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes he has ordered the Salvadoran military to help provide security in the prisons beginning June 26.

Funes is aware of the irony of this move — his political party, the former guerrilla movement Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, fought the military in the country’s 12-year civil war — and has taken pains to clarify the military's role.

“We are not militarizing” the prison system, the Salvadoran leader recently said, adding that military involvement is an exceptional measure limited to one year and that security continues to be the purview of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police.

If Funes sounds reluctant to employ the military in this manner, perhaps he is. There is a growing consensus among experts at the United Nations, Washington and throughout Latin America that the use of the military and other "zero-tolerance" measures has largely been ineffective or worse, counterproductive, for combating crime.

El Salvador police’s inspector general, Zaira Lis Navas, agreed with this assessment and said in an interview that the so-called mano dura and super mano dura of previous Salvadoran governments “generated a substantial breakage in the population’s trust toward the police.”

Attributing all criminal activity to the country’s gangs stigmatized a whole group of people and increased criminality, Navas said. Indeed, a report on citizen security and human rights released last month by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, found that zero-tolerance measures “laid the groundwork for vigilante justice by ‘social cleansing’ groups, ‘deaths squads’ or para‐police or para‐military groups” throughout the region.

Today El Salvador is the most dangerous country in one of the most dangerous regions in the world. The country’s murder rate is 71 murders per 100,000 people, well above the world average of 9.6 per 100,000. This year an average of 12 Salvadorans have been killed every 24 hours.

That is no worse than before Funes took office a year ago, Funes’ National Police Commissioner, Carlos Antonio Ascencio Giron, said during a recent visit to Washington. Still he acknowledged the police still struggle with popular distrust.

Giron said his agency is better at investigating extortion and that many cases end up in court, but that fear and lack of trust keep citizens from reporting crimes. He also regretted that for other crimes, such as murder and drug trafficking, suspects arrested by police quickly find their way back onto the street.

“The problem is with our entire system. We all have to improve -- the police, the prosecutor’s office, the tribunals,” Giron told reporters.

In search of such a comprehensive solution, Funes and his counterparts in Guatemala and Honduras have called for international support. They want Washington to help finance the expansion of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala to include their three countries.

Two and half years ago, CICIG, as the Commission is known, began work as an independent investigative team with unprecedented judicial power, the result of an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.

Tasked with combating corruption and breaking ties between organized crime and Guatemalan officials, the CICIG has forced the removal of 2000 police officers as well as several prosecutors and Supreme Court judges. Its work has also facilitated the prosecution of high-ranking officials including former President Alfonso Portillo.

But perhaps the best example of its effectiveness came early this month when the head of the panel, the Spanish judge Carlos Castresana resigned in frustration. He accused the newly appointed Attorney General of Guatemala, Conrado Reyes, of corruption and of having ties with organized crime. Within days Constitutional Court ruling ousted Reyes, a sign that the CICIG has inspired new courage from at least one of nation’s top institutions.

Some may view such foreign intervention as a threat to national sovereignty. Fortunately for Central America, its leaders are not captives of an old way of thinking -- a mindset that ill serves the urgent need to combat the seemingly uncontrollable violence and transnational crime that threatens Central Americans.

Marcela Sanchez is one of the most respected journalists writing about Latin America, as evidenced by her work for the most important papers in the United States -- including both the New York Times and The Washington Post -- as well as the two most important newspapers in Colombia -- El Espectador and El Tiempo -- Colombia's En Vivo and QAP TV channels, and Venezuela's Daily Journal. We welcome her back to the Latin American Herald Tribune, where her hemispheric wisdom appears every Friday.


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