El Salvador Security Minister Benito Lara's recent criticism of "iron fist" security policies is an abrupt change in rhetoric for an administration that has implemented a militarized approach to combating the country's deadly street gangs.
At a recent conference in Madrid, Lara said El Salvador's "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) initiatives "have not provided results" in lowering the country's homicide rate and improving security, reported Spanish news agency EFE.
These hardline policies have failed to solve the "profound structural problems" driving violence in El Salvador, such as social exclusion, Lara said. The minister added that education is "key" to preventing youths from joining gangs.
Lara praised the efforts of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren's administration, and said the country's current security crisis "has been politically manipulated." Violence levels are at their highest since the end of El Salvador's bloody civil war in the early 1990s, and the country is now widely considered the world's most violent.
Lara also lauded the government's "Secure El Salvador" plan, launched earlier this year. The key objectives of the plan include an increased focus on El Salvador's 50 most violent municipalities. However the plan is contingent on legislative approval of security budget proposals, including a controversial telecommunications tax.
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It is hard to accept the sincerity of Lara's criticism of iron fist policies considering the Sanchez Ceren administration's own actions have largely been an extension of them. Despite shying away from the term "iron fist," the government has taken an increasingly tough security approach by labeling gang members as "terrorists," deploying special forces to urban areas, and giving police the green light to shoot at suspected criminals.
On the other hand, Lara's comments may signal a philosophical shift within the government. The administration has previously shown signs of advocating a softer approach, including proposing a gang rehabilitation law that would be the first of its kind in El Salvador. "Secure El Salvador" also emphasizes crime prevention and reforms to the criminal justice system.
Giving the country's deterioritating security situation, it would be understandable if the Sanchez Ceren administration is looking for an alternative to the militarized strategy. Gangs have launched a record number of attacks on security forces and even paralyzed public transportation in San Salvador for days earlier this year. At the same time soldiers have expressed dissatifaction with their increased policing role and have been accused of arming the gangs.