Friday, January 27, 2012

El Salvador Proposes Hardline Anti-Gang Policies

El Salvador’s security and justice minister has called for the country to unify behind a plan to destroy the “maras” or street gangs, which he claims are behind 90 percent of all murders committed in the country.

El Faro has an interview with retired General David Munguia Payes, formerly defense minister and now head of the country’s security cabinet, who has promised to cut murders by 30 percent in 2012. He told the website that it is necessary to unblock legal “bottlenecks”  and put gang members in prison, saying that it could be necessary to lock up 10,000 people.
Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed … Our proposal is to fix this system, to open those bottlenecks, so that the system can process the large amount of crime that we have, to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the street.
The minister denies proposing an “iron fist” strategy against crime, arguing that instead the plan is “to squeeze where you have to squeeze and let go where you have to let go.” Munguia suggests a targeted anti-gang strategy similar to that of Rio de Janeiro’s Police Pacification Units, in which the security forces would arrive in an area, break down criminal structures, and gain the confidence of the population, before leaving a reduced police presence there. He also argues for dedicated anti-gang units of the police, and the use of states of emergency to place a curfew on minors and allow police to enter homes without a warrant.

Munguia’s comments will fuel concerns that the country is pursuing an increasingly militarized security strategy, as set out in Wednesday’s post.

As El Faro points out, Munguia's arguments rest on the key statistic that gangs are responsible for 90 percent of homicides. The website points out, however, that the minister has not given evidence for this figure, and that police say gangs committed 20 percent of murders, while govt forensic office (IML) put it as 10 percent.

Munguia told the site, however, that in many cases it is obvious that a victim has been killed as a result of gang warfare:
When you find a young guy dead with tattoes … if this dead person is between 14 and 35 there is a large possibility that they are a member of a gang … Or if they were killed in the zone of influence of a gang...
One of his arguments is that in Guatemala and Honduras most murders are carried out by gangs and the armed wings of drug trafficking groups, but “here we don’t have armed wings of drug trafficking. In this country those that kill are the gangs.” However he does say that the gangs in El Salvador dispute for territory with trafficking groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel.

A piece in IPS identifies a wider range of culprits for the high murder rate; “drug traffickers, organised crime, rogue death squads, state security forces and domestic violence.” It quotes Mauricio Figueroa, head of the Quetzalcoatl Foundation, as saying Munguia's information is "considerably mistaken, unacceptable and not credible,” and that he is trying to use gangs as a scapegoat to introduce new versions of iron fist policies that were employed by previous governments.

El Salvador finished 2011 with a murder rate of 70 per 100,000. By Munguia’s arguments, if the maras were broken up, the country would then have a rate of around 7 per 100,000 -- which would make it one of the safest places in Latin America.

As Tim’s El Salvador blog points out, the impunity rate throws Munguia's statements into doubt:
you have to question anybody who says they know the proportion of murders committed by gangs or drug-traffickers when the PNC [national police] says it has been able to solve only 34% of the murders in the country.


New Briefs

  • Efrain Rios Montt, a former military strongman who ruled Guatemala for over a year in the 1980s, has refused to speak in a court hearing over atrocities committed by the army during his time in power. The New York Times reportsthat prosecutors gave presentations on tortures, rapes, and mass killings committed by forces under his command, but that, when asked for a comment, the 85-year-old said “I prefer to remain silent.” After 12 hours of hearings, the judge ruled that Rios must stand trial on genocide charges over the deaths of some 1,771 people, part of the destruction of entire communities of Mayan indigenous groups during the country’s civil war. As noted in Monday’s post, even Rio’s appearance in court “is a victory for those who have sought to hold high-ranking military officials responsible for their abuses in the country’s civil war.”
  • A 20-story building and two others collapsed Wednesday in central Rio de Janeiro, with at least seven bodies recovered from the wreckage so far. Rescue workers are searching for another 20 people still missing amongst the rubble. The Wall Street Journal reports that it appears that the buildings were weakened by construction work, which may have been taking place without a permit and in violation of building codes. The tragedy is a massive setback for the image of the city, due to host the soccer World Cup and Olympics in the next four years. Rio Real blog notes the “shocking truth” that “ in Rio de Janeiro (and perhaps all of Brazil?), renovations are the full responsibility of the project engineer and the building owner. No government inspections are carried out– except for when the building first goes up.” It lists the other catastrophes Rio has seen in the last year, “exploding manhole covers, trolley, ferry and bus accidents, metro stoppages and electrical blackouts”, which are preventing the city reaching its full potential.
  • With more from Brazil, the Economist looks at the situation of the country’s Afro-descendents, who according to the 2010 census now makes up 51 percent of the population. The article reports that this group earns around half that of white people, on average, while a battle over affirmative action splits both the left and right wings of politics. Some argue that these schemes are themselves racist, dividing “a rainbow nation into arbitrary colour categories.” The Economist concludes that “A combination of stronger legal action against discrimination and quotas for social class in higher education to compensate for weak public schools may work better.”
  • The Economist also has a piece on why Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America, despite its poverty. It notes that the country’s rejection of iron fist policies, with the mass jailing of gangs, may have been a factor, as this can backfire by providing a massive population of criminalized youths, as in neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala.
  • With more on the issue of gangs in Central America, the New York Times has an op-ed on Honduras, in which it argues that the US media generally attributes the violence in that country to the phenomena of gangs and drug trafficking, when in fact “the coup was what threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.” It highlights the murder of more than 300 people by state security forces since the coup, as reported by human rights group COFADEH, and of more than 13 journalists since President Lobo took power. This follows a spate of reports and opinion pieces in the US media on violence in Honduras, some of which provide valuable insights and some of which, as pointed out on yesterday's post, do not.
  • The Washington Post has a piece on the growing role of security contractors in Mexico as the drug war rages, their wages paid by US aid programs, the Mexican government, or private firms. However, as the report notes, tight gun laws mean they cannot legally carry arms.
  • Nicaragua has passed legal measures which impose greater penalties on those committing violent attacks against women. The country saw 76 females murdered in 2011.
  • The US government knew that the Argentine government was stealing babies from dissidents during the military dictatorship, according to testimony from a former diplomat.
  • Some 30 pounds of cocaine was delivered in fake diplomatic cases to the UN headquarters in New York. They had been sent from Mexico, and authorities think they went astray and ended up in the UN mailroom by mistake.
  • The Associated Press points out that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney rarely mentions his Mexican heritage, even when trying to woo Hispanic voters. His father was born in Mexico, and Romney still has relatives living in Chihuahua.