Security cameras help Salvadoran police fight street gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18

Salvadoran authorities plan to install more than 6,000 security cameras in the capital city of San Salvador and outlying areas in the coming months to improve public safety.
Julieta Pelcastre | 21 July 2014

Police surveillance: Authorities at the PNC’s Command and Control System monitor security cameras in and near San Salvador. The cameras are helping police fight gangs, international drug traffickers, and common criminals. [Photo: Ministry of Security]

Salvadoran authorities plan to install more than 6,000 security cameras in the capital city of San Salvador and outlying areas in the coming months to improve public safety.

The cameras will help security forces monitor and confront violence by gangs, transnational criminal organizations, and common criminals, according to Educational Foundation for the Prevention of Drug Abuse (FORESEE) executive director Carlos Aviles.

“The use of video surveillance cameras will enhance the effectiveness of law enforcement against drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, common crime, theft and other emerging threats,” Aviles said. “It will strengthen (crime) prevention in San Salvador.”

Using technology to fight crime

Technology is essential to the security forces of any nation, Aviles said. For example, London has used closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) for years to monitor the streets of the city.

The new cameras will be phased in, authorities said. The first phase began May 20, when authorities began installing 360 security cameras, which the National Civil Police (PNC) will use to monitor city streets for criminal activity, according to the Ministry of Security.

Each surveillance camera can cover as much ground as 22 police officers on patrol, Jose Ricardo Perdomo, the minister of justice and public security, told reporters the day authorities began installing the devices. Authorities installed many of the cameras on streets that led into and out of San Salvador.

"In the past, it was easier to point to specific areas that could be dangerous. Unfortunately, crime is spreading geographically,” Aviles said. “San Salvador is a sensitive area again.”

The government plans on placing up to 6,500 cameras in the capital city and outlying areas.

Images captured by the security cameras can be stored in a database for up to eight years. Authorities will be able to use images to monitor crimes as they occur, to identify potential criminal suspects and victims, and to check the registration of vehicle license numbers.

Each camera has a range of about 800 meters. The ability of cameras to cover large amounts of territory will allow police who monitor the cameras to conduct “virtual patrols.”

The cameras will send images to the PNC’s central command and control center. PNC authorities will monitor the images to respond to dispatch officers to crimes in progress and to gather intelligence.

Monitoring MS-13 and Barrio 18

The surveillance cameras will help security forces keep track of the criminal activities of the two largest gangs in El Salvador – Mara Salvatrucha, which is also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18, which is also known as 18th Street and M-18.

Both of these gangs engage in killings, extortion, armed robbery, kidnapping, and micro-trafficking of drugs.

Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have both formed alliances with international drug trafficking groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, which operate in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. The gangs help drug cartels transport cocaine and other drugs north to Mexico, the United States, and other destinations.

The Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, two Mexican transnational criminal organizations, have expanded their operations in recent years in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Training, coordination, and intelligence

The security cameras are an important tool in the fight against crime, but they are part of a larger effort which involves improved training, intelligence gathering, and cooperation between citizens and the PNC, as well as between Salvadoran and U.S. security forces, according to Aviles.

“Technology alone will not solve the problem of gangs or organizations of transnational organized crime,” Aviles said. “Technology needs to be accompanied by good training for all members of the security forces, equipment, weapons, vehicles, advanced communication, coordination and intelligence to successfully combat these criminal organizations.”

Before they began installing large numbers of security cameras, authorities tested the surveillance system by installing a small number of the devices in San Salvador, according to the Ministry of Security. Those first cameras helped police capture a gang of car thieves, stop a drug transaction, and identify extortion suspects.

Video and images from security cameras can be important tools in the fight against crime, Aviles said. Police and prosecutors can use video and photographic images from security cameras to identify criminals and bring them to justice. Video and photographic evidence can be crucial in criminal trials.

The security camera system cost more than $5 million (USD), according to the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety. The camera surveillance system is equipped with the most sophisticated technology available and is protected against cyber-attacks.

Salvadoran authorities are increasing their use of technology to fight crime. For example, authorities have blocked cellphone service at 10 prisons throughout the country to fight crime. Cellphones are prohibited inside prisons, but some incarcerated gang leaders have had friends or relatives smuggle the devices to them inside prison. The gang leaders have used the smuggled cellphones to direct the criminal activities of their gangs.

Providing the best in technology is part of government’s broad strategy to fight gangs, international drug trafficking groups, and common criminals. In addition to the surveillance camera system, the government in recent years has provided the PNC an automated ballistics and fingerprint identification system, which helps police conduct criminal investigations.

A pledge to fight crime

On June 10, Minister of Justice and Security Benito Lara pledged the government is doing everything it can to fight crime and improve security.in every part of El Salvador.

“Our policy is clear, we will develop everything in our power to combat crime. We will deploy more police officers in areas where gangs operate,” Lara said.

The combination of improvements in technology and cooperation between the police and the residents of El Salvador should lead to improvements in public safety, Aviles said.

“Any action to prevent insecurity and violence brings results,” he said. “In the near future the crime reduction is expected.”

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