Exclusive Interview With The Salvadoran Defense Minister Gen. David Munguía Payés

Por Dialogo
julio 28, 2010

For the first time in El Salvador, criminals burned a bus with passengers
inside. The crime, which took place on 20 June and left seventeen people dead,
including a baby girl a few months old, horrified the country and created political
pressure for the implementation of new anti-gang measures in the Central American

Among these measures is the use of the armed forces in support of the fight
against groups like the Mara 18 gang, accused of responsibility for the bus attack,
and others.

The Salvadoran Defense Minister granted Diálogo the following exclusive
interview, minutes after addressing the Sub-Regional Conference for Mesoamerica,
held 20-23 July in San Salvador and organized by the Center for Hemispheric Defense
Studies (CHDS), in order to discuss this and other

Diálogo – What is the role of the armed forces today in El

Gen. Munguía – The tasks that we’re going to carry out in
providing support to the National Civil Police (PNC) have
been defined. There’s an 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 functions of police. We have a mandate to set
up checkpoints, search vehicles, search people, and arrest individuals caught

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

Gen. Munguía – We’ve formed eight task forces of 350 men each,
with their respective officers. The mission we have is to occupy the twenty-nine
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 being part of a gang, and that’s also
going to give us the opportunity to arrest gang members.

Diálogo – So, currently, being part of a gang is not considered
a crime?

Gen. Munguía – At the moment, the fact of 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

Diálogo – What was the participation of the armed forces in the
case of the bus that was burned?

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 to 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 this large number of homicides that are being committed in the country.
When the armed forces started to support the National Civil Police (PNC) 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 9 homicides a day for the month of June

Diálogo – Can you say a bit more about the intervention 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, like Alcatraz was in 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 reality. Building a normal prison
costs the country around thirty million dollars. 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 finished yet, 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 these 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

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 (July
2010), this was one of 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, with even the participation of Mexico and

Diálogo – How can problems related to human rights be

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, non-commissioned 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 after that, 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 reinsertion 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 treating a child who has committed a crime as an adult.