Stories like this one are too common in El Salvador:
SAN SALVADOR – One person was killed and four others wounded when two suspected gang members shot up a tortilla stand outside the Salvadoran capital, police said Thursday.
They said the attack took place Wednesday night in a rural area of the municipality of Apopa.
The assailants walked into the small shop and opened fire, a police officer told Efe, killing Ernestina Barahona, 58, and leaving four other people wounded, including an 11-year-old boy.
While authorities did not suggest a motive for the attack, protection payments extorted from bus drivers and owners of small businesses represent a major source of income for El Salvador’s fearsome youth gangs.
The year 2009 seems to be headed towards the highest murder total yet. Just in the first 13 days of October, there were 201 homicides -- an average of 15 a day. The wave of murder and extortion disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable parts of Salvadoran society.
Faced with this human tragedy, José M. Tojeira, rector of the University of Central America, wrote a column in Diario Colatino titled "In the fight against crime." Tojeira made a proposal that half of the current armed forces be switched to the National Civilian Police (PNC) in order to fight crime in the country:
De corto plazo sería integrar a la mitad de las fuerzas militares en el cuerpo policial. En la fuerza Armada hay recurso humano, oficiales con capacidad de disciplina, con buena formación administrativa y acostumbrados a tratar los problemas con racionalidad y estrategia.
Traspasarlos a la PNC, juntos con sus tropas, podría implicar un proceso máximo de un año de entrenamiento y formación policial. Pero en un año se estaría incluyendo en la PNC aproximadamente cinco mil personas sin un costo presupuestario especial. Quedarían en el Ejército otros cinco mil hombres que podrían utilizarse tanto para misiones de paz en el exterior, asistencia en tiempo de desastres, etc.
La idea puede parecer loca, pero es mejor que andar sacando militares a la calle a acompañar a los de la PNC. Nuestro país no tiene amenazas externas y en realidad no necesita ejército. Pero si se quiere mantener por esos temas de cooperación internacional en misiones de paz o de ayuda en tiempo de desastre, con cinco mil miembros sería suficiente. En un país de escasos recursos, y donde la delincuencia está ocasionando costos humanos tan elevados, las decisiones tienen que ser radicales. Sobre todo si decimos que las personas son primero.
One short term step would be to integrate half of the military into the police. In the armed forces there is a human resource, officers with the ability for discipline, well trained in administration and accustomed to dealing with problems with rationality and strategy.
To transfer them to the PNC, together with their troops, is a process could involve up to one year of training and police formation. But in a year, included in the PNC would be approximately five thousand people without a special budgetary cost. There would remain in the army five thousand men that could be used both for peacekeeping missions abroad, in times of disaster assistance, etc..
The idea may seem crazy, but it's better than taking out soldiers walking the streets to accompany the PNC. Our country has no external threats and in reality an army is not really needed. But if you want to keep them for issues of international cooperation in peace missions and aid in time of disaster, five thousand members would be sufficient. In a country with limited resources and where crime is causing such high human cost, decisions have to be radical. Especially if we say that people come first.
There are already some 2000 members of the armed forces designated to support units who patrol high crime areas in tandem with police patrols. You can see them in their army fatigues and M-16 rifles walking along with PNC officers in their characteristic navy blue uniforms. This practice was started under former president Tony Saca and continues today. Tojeira's proposal would involve a much larger number of people -- but would they be acting as members of the military or would they be former soldiers now under civilian police command?
The idea of moving more than 5000 soldiers into the fight against crime in El Salvador took off immediately. President Mauricio Funes indicated that it was an idea worth considering, at the same time as the PNC was declaring a state of emergency because of the increased number of homicides. Meanwhile the Armed Forces stated that they would propose dedicating 6500 troops to combating crime, in a proposal which clearly maintained the troops under the control of the military command structure.
La Prensa Grafica reported that the Human Rights Ombudsman, Oscar Humberto Luna supported the temporary use of the armed forces to combat crime, although he had reservations. The archbishop of San Salvador endorsed the idea yesterday in his press conference.
Lutheran bishop Medardo Gomez also wanted limitations:
En cuanto al tema de la violencia y la inseguridad, Gómez sostuvo que el uso de la fuerza armada para combatir dichos problemas sociales “debe de ser una medida temporal y sujeta a la supervisión policial”. Obispo asegura que de no hacerse así “se correría el riesgo de volver al militarismo, por lo cual estos problemas se deben de tratar desde la raíz, para evitar que la medicina sea peor que la enfermedad”.
With regard to the to the issue of violence and insecurity, Gomez maintained that the use of the armed forces to fight said social problems “should be a temporary measure and subject to police supervision.” The Bishop stated that not doing so “would run the risk of returning to militarism, which is why these problems should be dealt with at their root causes, so that the medicine is not worse than the disease.”
Director of the Human Rights Institute at the UCA, Benjamin Cueller, however, sounds a cautionary note in a column in the online periodical ContraPunto, emphasizing that the original proposal from the Tojeira was for a dramatic reduction of the size of the armed forces and the re-training of soldiers as civilians. Cuellar pointed to the danger created when the armed forces refuse to be subject to civilian judicial authority if a soldier kills an innocent civilian in cold blood. He pointed to the military coup in Honduras and questioned whether El Salvador wanted to return to a situation where the armed forces saw themselves as the guarantor of their view of an ordered society.
These are questions of constitutional significance in El Salvador. Under El Salvador's constitution and the 1992 Peace Accords, public security is the job of a professional, civilian police force to be completely separate from the Armed Forces. The President is allowed to call out the armed forces, only in exceptional circumstances after he has exhausted all ordinary means of maintaining public order. (El Sal. Const. Art. 159 and 168) For many in El Salvador, the extortion and murder afflicting many communities, now justify such extraordinary measures. It is an age old question which many societies grapple with -- how much civil liberty are are citizens willing to cede to their government in return for physical security?
A decision from Mauricio Funes about the role of the armed forces will come soon. In a symptom of how the crime wave is impacting Salvadoran society, rumors were circulating today that gangs were going to attack schools or particular municipalities in response to the plans to involve the army in crime fighting.
Thanks to Larry Ladutke for our conversation which formed part of the background for this post.