For the first time in El Salvador’s history, criminals set fire to a city bus filled with passengers on June 20, 2010. The crime left 17 dead, including a girl just months old. The torching horrified the country and created political pressure to implement new anti-gang measures in the Central American nation. Among the measures is an order permitting the use of the armed forces to support police fighting groups such as the Mara 18 gang, which is accused of the bus attack among other violent crimes sweeping the nation. Salvadoran Defense Minister David Munguía Payés granted Diálogo an exclusive interview after addressing the Sub-Regional Conference for Mesoamerica, organized by the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies from July 20-23 in San Salvador.
DIÁLOGO: What is the role of the armed forces today in El Salvador?
Gen. David Munguía Payés: The tasks that we’re going to carry out in providing support to the National Civil Police [PNC] have been defined. There’s executive order No. 70 in which the president orders the armed forces to support the PNC but limits our actions, that is to say, we don’t have all the police’s functions. We have a mandate to set up checkpoints, search vehicles, search people and arrest individuals caught red-handed.
DIÁLOGO: What happens when individuals are arrested by armed forces personnel?
Gen. Munguía: If we arrest someone, we immediately turn that person over to the PNC. In addition to that, we’ve established a joint command with the PNC where all activities are coordinated, so that if there’s a problem, it can be solved right there, at the joint command.
DIÁLOGO: How is the fulfillment of this task being approached?
Gen. Munguía: We’ve formed eight task forces of 350 men each with their respective officers. The mission we have is to occupy the 29 areas with the highest crime rates in the country. We’re operating in these areas, and our presence is a permanent one.
DIÁLOGO: Is this a preventive measure?
Gen. Munguía: Up to now, it’s all preventive. There’s a proposal to reform the law to criminalize membership in a gang, and that’s also going to give us the opportunity to arrest gang members.
DIÁLOGO: Currently, being part of a gang is not considered a crime?
Gen. Munguía: At the moment, belonging to a gang is not considered a crime. The principle of the presumption of innocence prevails, that is to say, although we know some of them are criminals, and people point them out to us as criminals, we can’t do anything. It’s very difficult to prove the crimes. We can only arrest them if we catch them red-handed. Right now, we can’t arrest them on allegations that they commit crimes.
DIÁLOGO: But isn’t it true that in order to be part of a gang, the future member is supposed to commit a crime?
Gen. Munguía: It’s true. In reality, today, they demand that the person commit at least one homicide. There are cases of gangs that demand up to six homicides. Therefore, it can be presumed that if a person belongs to a gang, it’s because he’s already committed at least one homicide, but they can’t be arrested on the basis of this presumption, nor can you start an investigation or legal proceedings. It’s necessary to wait for them to commit other crimes and for us to catch them in the act. Nevertheless, there’s a new law proposed by the president of the republic that will allow us to arrest them for belonging to a gang.
DIÁLOGO: What was the participation of the armed forces in the case of the bus that was set on fire?
Gen. Munguía: Unfortunately, we didn’t participate directly in that investigation. Nevertheless, we already knew that this gang existed in the municipality where they committed the crime, but we couldn’t arrest them until they committed a crime. However, we helped the National Police solve the problem because we advised them that there was this gang in this area, and they focused their investigation in that direction.
DIÁLOGO: Do you consider gangs to be the main security problem in El Salvador at present?
Gen. Munguía: Yes. We can’t overlook the fact that there are others, like organized crime, drug trafficking and white-collar crime, which can also be behind these gangs. The chief problem arises from the combination of gangs with drug trafficking. This is what is causing the violence that we’re seeing in the streets and the large number of homicides that are being committed in the country. When the armed forces started to support the National Civil Police more consistently — in November 2009 — the crime rate was between 14 and 15 homicides a day. With the work that we’ve been doing, we’ve succeeded first of all in containing the upward trend of this vicious cycle, and then with the most recent missions that the president of the republic has assigned us, such as taking control of a significant portion of the prisons, we’ve succeeded, together with the police, in getting down to nine homicides a day for the month of June 2010.
DIÁLOGO: Can you tell us more about the involvement of the armed forces in the prisons?
Gen. Munguía: The police had data indicating that more than 80 percent of extortions were ordered from inside the prisons. Today there’s been a significant drop in extortions in the country due to the action and support of the armed forces, just to cite one example.
DIÁLOGO: What is your opinion on putting prisons in isolated locations, such as Alcatraz of the United States?
Gen. Munguía: It would be a good thing, but it’s necessary to distinguish between what we would like to do and our reality. Building a normal prison costs the country around $30 million. Building a high-security prison and putting it on an island might cost us three or four times more. The reality is that the country is not currently in a position to spend that much money on building those kinds of prisons. There are cheaper alternatives, like building prisons using modular containers and surrounding them with a security perimeter to hold trusted prisoners or those who are about to complete their sentences, older adults or individuals with very serious illnesses. I believe that this could be a temporary solution to the problem.
DIÁLOGO: Aren’t cell phone blockers in prisons another solution to be implemented?
Gen. Munguía: Technology is one solution, but it can’t be the only solution because no technological tool is 100 percent secure. First, because the technology isn’t fully developed, and second, because in the end, these technological devices have to be operated by human beings. This is another large problem that we have in the prisons, that is to say, there’s quite a bit of corruption there. For example, the United States gave us some scanning chairs that detect whether someone going into a prison is carrying something illicit. It’s a good technology, but it’s been observed that several times, the person who was administering a scan using the chairs disconnected them at the time they were being used. We know that it’s from inside the prisons and by means of cell phone calls that crimes are being ordered on the outside, and the government is making efforts to prevent this, even using cell phone blockers, but it’s something that’s complicated to fight.
DIÁLOGO: Is there an exchange of police and military intelligence across the whole region?
Gen. Munguía: Yes, but it’s still very elementary and deficient. During the last meeting of the Central American Integration System [in July 2010], this was one of the topics discussed. Commitments have been made and coordination has been done precisely in order to handle the transfer of information and intelligence more effectively and more rapidly, so that we can be more effective in the fight against crime, including with the participation of Mexico and Colombia.
DIÁLOGO: How can problems related to human rights be avoided?
Gen. Munguía: The first thing that we did was to train our personnel on the subject of human rights before starting to carry out these missions. We set up teams with the organizations that defend human rights and with other specialized organizations in order for them to give classes in this area to our officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel. We also have strict supervision in the fulfillment of our missions. Up to now, there have not been any serious accusations related to human-rights violations.
DIÁLOGO: And with regard to juvenile delinquents, what is the government doing to prevent them from joining gangs, and what should be done with those who are already part of gangs?
Gen. Munguía: First, it’s necessary to control the areas in order to prevent the criminals from dominating an area, so that afterward, the government can come into these locations with its social programs. The vast majority of these social programs are directed toward helping at-risk youth so that they don’t turn to gangs. There are also rehabilitation and reintegration plans for those who want to leave a gang. Now, since the laws on juvenile crime are very protective of minors, the gangs use children to commit crimes. In the country currently, 90 percent of crimes are committed by gang members, and of these, around 60 percent are committed by children. Our society is even debating the possibility of lowering the minimum age for considering a child who has committed a crime as an adult.