El Salvador and Guatemala Join Forces to Dismantle the Structure of Gangs
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo October 12, 2016Representatives of the Army of Guatemala and the Armed Forces of El Salvador met at the XVII Binational Meeting of Military Border Unit Commanders on August 24th and 25th to step up border security operations to keep gangs and transnational criminal groups from using the border between the two countries to perform illegal activities. “The goal is to cast a shared vision and develop a plan to promote coordination between military institutions and their countries’ security entities in order to fight gangs and illegal transnational groups,” Infantry Colonel Ismael Cifuentes Bustamante, director of Operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the National Defense of the Army of Guatemala, told Diálogo. “It is important to join forces in order to achieve positive results.” During the meeting, held during the Central American Armed Forces Conference, top military authorities determined the dates, schedules, and coordinates for the joint coordinated patrols of border areas. Military representatives from each country spoke about how they are teaming up with the national police and the different organizations in charge of security. “The main challenge is the permeability of the Guatemala-El Salvador border, a passageway used by gangs and drug traffickers to avoid the main checkpoints. In addition to using violence, criminal organizations also look for new ways to evade justice and get weapons in order to put up a tougher fight,” explained Col. Cifuentes. Gangs’ silent war The activity of the MS13 gang and its rival, Barrio 18, is concentrated in the countries known as the Northern Triangle of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. According to a report by the UN Refugee Agency published on July 1, 2016, these gangs have brought a silent war to the region. In 2012, the United States government designated MS13 as a transnational criminal organization. The drug trafficking groups in Guatemala are usually used as couriers or “mules” by Mexican criminal organizations. According to the website InSight Crime, some members of MS13 have fled the country and relocated to Honduras and Guatemala because of the crackdown by authorities in El Salvador. MS13 and Barrio 18 perpetrate a wide range of crimes such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, and murder. “Border operations against organized criminals have been ramped up over the last five years, and coordination in this effort has extended to the navies of the two countries to protect the territorial waters and even airspace, not just in Guatemala but in all of Central America,” explained Col. Cifuentes. In Guatemala, 356 gang members were arrested during the first six months of 2016, and 381 gang members were arrested during the same period of 2015, according to the Criminal Investigation Division of the National Civil Police of Guatemala. Cooperation key to reducing crime Thanks to the work of the Special Reaction Force (FER, per its Spanish acronym), which is made up of 600 soldiers and 400 elite police officers, El Salvador has managed to reduce its crime rate by more than 50 percent in April and May 2016, as reported by the Salvadoran Ministry of Security. FER began operations in April, with the mission of arresting gang leaders and dismantling their structure. Based on lessons learned, senior officers of the Guatemalan Army and the Salvadoran Armed Forces reached several agreements. “In addition to harmonizing communication technology, it is important to continue increasing operational coordination, and each country must refine the legal details to be able to react in a timely manner and come down hard on crime,” commented Col. Cifuentes. By working together and exchanging information, the Guatemalan Army and the Salvadoran Armed Forces have strengthened their friendship and cooperation ties. “We communicate in an open, ongoing and direct way that allows us to act quickly when needed, always protecting human rights and civil liberties,” said Col. Cifuentes. For the security plan to work more effectively, there is a need to strengthen the preventive, investigative, and criminal areas, said Jose Misael Rivas Soriano, dean of Juridical and Social Sciences of the New University San Salvador. "Criminals will never attempt to cross the border if they are not sure of being able to do so. The joint patrols should be reinforced with more security elements in order to affect these criminal structures more strongly," concluded Rivas.