El Salvador: Gang Problem Becoming Regional Threat

El Salvador: Gang Problem Becoming Regional Threat

By Dialogo
April 26, 2016




The gang problem has intensified so much in El Salvador that the government has designated gangs as terrorist groups, as of August 23, 2015. The government cannot negotiate with gangs and must use all available resources to combat them, according to an order from the country's Supreme Court.

The issue is definitely alarming. When reviewing the number of homicides since 1999 – the year homicides began to be surveyed – the annual rate has never fallen below 25 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from the United Nations. This number is twice the mortality rate by which the World Health Organization identifies an illness as an epidemic.

To talk about this and other issues affecting El Salvador, Diálogo
spoke with Major General Félix Núñez Escobar, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, during the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) 2016, held in San José, Costa Rica, between April 6th-8th.

Diálogo:
What is the importance of El Salvador’s participation in an event such as CENTSEC?

General Felix Nuñez Escobar:
I believe that these forums are very interesting for the region because they integrate all the necessary efforts – as [Costa Rican] President Solís said – of pursuing regional commitments to face common regional threats, such as drug trafficking, organized crime
, and in the Northern Triangle region, gangs. Therefore, participating in this type of forum is very important, since we can contribute and fulfill those commitments from the Armed Forces and Public Security ministries level, so we can really seek those solutions to achieve our societies’ well-being and our countries’ development.

Diálogo:
What is the region's current situation regarding drug trafficking?

General Nuñez:
With regard to my country, there is intense drug-trafficking activity at the regional level, both in the northern region and the Pacific region. We have had some very significant seizures lately, which is an indicator, a sign that drug trafficking is being conducted in a very different manner when compared to previous years. They are seeking more viable and safe routes by sea in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, while land operations have been reduced, at least in the Central American region.

Diálogo:
How does the issue of gangs fit into the themes discussed at this meeting? I understand that El Salvador is undertaking a great effort to control the problem, but can the country do it on its own, or does it need some type of joint effort to achieve it?

General Nuñez:
I believe that none of our countries can say we are self-sufficient to solve this kind of problem. Specifically with the gang issue you brought to light, it has expanded in El Salvador. It has increased considerably now that the gangs are almost merged with organized crime. Therefore, we cannot see the gangs as a strictly Central American-specific threat, or a specifically Salvadoran threat, because we have identified connections with organizations that are closely linked to drug trafficking.

Diálogo:
You say that the issue is not limited to El Salvador, but rather that it extends to the Northern Triangle. Do the three countries -- El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- have a plan to discuss security, drug trafficking, gangs, and all the issues we are talking about at CENTSEC ?

General Nuñez:
We hope that, at the end of the forum, everyone will have brought their experiences to light, what we have been doing and what has given us positive results. We hope that, at the end of the forum, we can agree on possible combinations that could have a positive regional effect.

Diálogo:
What can El Salvador share with the other countries attending CENTSEC?

General Nuñez:
On the part of El Salvador, the experience we have gained in the fight against the gangs, which has lasted for many years now [includes] the Armed Forces’ participation and their almost 100 percent engagement in support of public security. I believe we have gained much experience in how to reduce [the gangs’] actions, and I believe this is very important. Eventually, I think we will make recommendations towards that effect.

Diálogo:
Fighting organized crime and gangs is considered part of the “new” threat. Many Latin American countries have combined their Armed Forces and law enforcement organizations to work jointly, but there are countries, like Costa Rica and Panama, which only have law enforcement agencies. Is there any initiative in place in which the Military and the police would join in a common Military-police front at a regional level?

General Nuñez:
We are an example of that, so, yes, it is possible and necessary to have a joint effort, to work together. We work with the police, supporting them in all their planning, seeking specifically to reduce all this criminality that has been generated, be it by the gangs or by other types of unlawful groups. But it is evident that in the face of situations like the one in Central America, very rigorous and integrative work must be undertaken by the Military and the law enforcement agencies.

Diálogo:
But the Armed Forces’ main role is not fighting drug trafficking, correct?

General Nuñez:
Correct.

Diálogo:
But this has been the case in El Salvador for years. The Armed Forces are involved in this fight. Are there plans to change that – in other words, to let the police do their job?

General Nuñez:
Your question is very interesting, but we have to contextualize why we continue to do this. One needs to know the context of why and since when the Armed Forces have been participating in the realm of the public security forces. If you recall, after signing the peace agreements in 1992, one of the provisions was the creation of a new civilian National Police. Therefore, all territories that did not have a police presence had to be secured somehow. It was after those peace agreements that all public security agencies in existence were dissolved. The Armed Forces created joint groups with a new police force, which had no experience yet. Thus, it is since then that [the Military] have been accompanying the police in the dimensions you have seen, very much engaged at the public security level. But this context is different than other countries' cases. We have been supporting them this way because that police force is a new institution – compared to those in other countries – that has been acquiring experience and, in certain moments, has needed this unconditional support from the Armed Forces to reduce all that criminality.

Diálogo:
What role does U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) play in this regional Military-police cooperation effort?

General Nuñez:
SOUTHCOM has always been attentive to situations related to all illicit, criminal, and drug-trafficking activity and has always supported us to strengthen our capabilities
, both for the police and the Armed Forces, with the idea that there must be a coordinated and joint effort to reduce those activities throughout the region.
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