On February 9th, 2020 the eyes of the international community focused on El Salvador as President Nayib Bukele entered the nation’s Congress along with military personnel. This was the result of an initiative promoted by the President to allocate $ 109 million to improve and equip the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Armed Forces to fight gang violence under the Plan Control Territorial. The security plan has caused heated disagreements among Salvadorans. What is at the center of the debates? Latina Republic interviewed Luis Enrique Contreras, a Political Analyst and Consultant on Citizen Security and Police Tactics of El Salvador for his analysis of the plans’ strengths and challenges.
Latina Republic: Citizen security is a top priority for the Bukele administration. What is your experience in security and what is your evaluation of the Plan Control Territorial so far?
My name is Luis Enrique Contreras, I am a Political Analyst and Consultant on Citizen Security and Police Tactics in El Salvador. I am 36 years old. For 15 years, I taught at the Public Security Academy (ANSP), where police officers are trained. While there, I received extensive training through courses and seminaries in Citizen Security with CIPREVI, an NGO from Denmark. I was certified in police intervention tactics with RONIN POLICE of the U.S., and earned an International Certification in Citizen Security, reaching Expert Level III with Tactical Police System Operations, KRAV Maga and Police Methods System in Costa Rica. My training with US institutions has included the FBI, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the DEA. This training focused on security and the use of force. I also received education through JICA Japanese Cooperation, which allowed me to learn first-hand, how police officers are trained in Japan. I received these trainings through ANSP, where I worked as an instructor for fifteen years.
For the past 6 years, I have managed my own Consultancy firm, PROSEDE (Protection, Security and Defense). We provide training in crime prevention, prevention of extortion, and training in the use of firearms. Every year, I travel to Costa Rica to give orientations to criminologists in the Judicial Intelligence Agency, (OIJ). I have been working as a political analyst in El Salvador for the last 4 years. I have a background in political science and I attend the OAS’s international forums, yearly. I have experience in political science, public safety, police tactics, and I am a columnist for several digital newspaper media.
Last year, I visited Medellin, Colombia, to get a better perspective of multidimensional security analysis.
Latina Republic: Why has the Plan Control Territorial, designed to bring security from gangs brought such divisions among Salvadorans? What happened on February 9th when the Executive and the Legislative Branch faced off in the Legislative Assembly?
To understand February 9th, we need to analyze the political context surrounding it. It is difficult to understand an isolated situation. For 20 years, El Salvador was led by ARENA, an ideologically right-wing party that produced four Salvadoran presidents, including Antonio Saca, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption, along with others of his former officials. During the ARENA years, maras and gangs were born, germinated and grew. Public security never received the attention it needed.
The president who is currently in prison, sentenced for corruption for 10 years, was a mano dura, a hard hand. During the 2000s, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala adopted hard-hand policies to reverse the progress of the gangs but failed to stop gangs and instead turned them more violent. These policies were released under different names, in Guatemala it was called Plan Escoba, in Honduras, Libertad Azul and in El Salvador, Plan Mano Dura. The United Nations declared these strategies a failure as they contributed to strengthening the gangs. Part of the problem was the lack of a criminal policy to provide continuity and recovery of the social fabric of El Salvador. The mano dura strategies only focused on the repression of crime and were not backed by legal means.
Estados Vacios-Empty Spaces
These failed strategies allowed the maras and gangs (maras refer to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and gangs, refers to gang 18) to control the territories of El Salvador, a process that in the field of security is called, “estados vacios,” (empty states) because the state has lost the power to provide public security to its citizens, something that it is constitutionally mandated to provide. This situation enabled the gangs and maras to multiply throughout the country.
These criminal groups extort, kill, and control business through extortion. They also set up businesses of their own, legally, with illegal money, and so they cohabit with the state.
Low Intensity War
When criminal groups coexist with the state, we have the phenomenon of a low intensity war. They do not seek to overthrow the government, like the guerrillas of the past, (as was the case of the FMLN, a communist party that tried to overthrow the government in the 1980s), but rather they seek to live off the state; they are favored by the laws of the state.
In this way, the gangs gain control of states by taking advantage of the estados vacios, where they associate with corrupt politicians who allow them to carry out criminal activities, like murdering people, etc.
In 2015, during the FMLN government, statistical data recorded 103 daily murders for 100,000 inhabitants. This is very serious because according to world health statistics, 10 murders per 100,000 inhabitants is considered an epidemic. In El Salvador, we had 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
With President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, we reached a decrease in deaths to 50.3, but the rates remained very high.
President Bukele comes in and in 9 months he achieves optimal results with daily homicide counts in January and February of 3.9. This was something unthinkable in the past. On a global level, 35 murders have been recorded per 100,000 inhabitants, that is, more than 15 have been dropped, so to speak, and that has been very good for the population and a credit to the current president.
Latina Republic: What did President Nayib Bukele do?
Bukele totally changed the paradigm. He transcended the archetype of having police in non-police roles, which was needed in our country. For example, the current Minister of Justice and Security, Rogelio Rívas is a civilian; the director of Criminal Centers, Osiris Luna is a civilian, who was previously a deputy. Only the director of the PNC is a policeman. This is a great achievement. With Bukele we have transitioned into a model of citizen security that is very different from the public security model.
Citizen security involves the intervention of other supra-national organizations, often NGOs, and local governments, such as city halls, schools, churches; that is, it is important to involve the community again so that it feels rooted, involved, so they can witness and be a part of the process of reclaiming their spaces. This paves the way for a collaborative effort to reclaim security in places of residence. Public safety does not do this; it prosecutes crime.
President Bukele understands that security is the cornerstone of the economy and that security is El Salvador’s greatest problem. When there is no security, the economy declines. For example, during the last 5 years, during the presidency of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, 100 foreign companies left the country. They closed due to crime.
Plan Control Territorial–Territorial Control Plan
Our country has been characterized worldwide as one of the most violent, according to UN studies. In 2017, El Salvador had an average of 64 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, considered an epidemic of violence and an alarming situation.
In June 2018, upon assuming the presidency, Nayib Bukele launched the Plan Control Territorial, commanded by the current security minister, Rogelio Rivas. This plan has different phases, which allows for the development of a holistic strategy that focuses on different areas.
During this initial phase, an operational tactical deployment moves into specific, high-crime areas. This is known as the first level of force, according to the police pyramid.
Police presence is not randomized, and it is not a show, as was the case during the years when the FMLN party ordered tanks in “pink areas,” which are commercial zones.
In criminology, geographic crime profiles are used to select and target the areas with the highest crime rates. The deployment of police and military elements acts as a deterrent, displacing crime and preventing criminal operations from being active.
In its application in El Salvador, phase I has achieved a considerable reduction in homicides (3.7 homicides daily until January 19, 2020); an unthinkable achievement in such a short time in government. The initial phase also consists of resuming order in the prison systems that previously served as operational centers for gang leaders.
It is broad and ambitious because it seeks to recover fragmented social cohesion that has been affected for years. To do so, the government brings health, education, cultural activities to vulnerable communities at risk, a process known in citizen security as a good practice for the prevention of violence.
These interventions allow a proximity with young people from communities at risk and over the long term, they create safe communities. Phase II means the recovery of the social fabric. This phase requires a lot of investment because it involves the reintroduction of other state departments, like health, education, many of which left because of gang presence.
Many teachers refused to teach in cantones, which are marginal areas, because they were extorted or threatened. Similarly to the case of teachers, social workers who made home visits to families in remote areas stopped visiting them due to threats. The same happened with doctors, and nurses.
Partisanships Threaten the Success of Phase II
The second phase of Plan Control Territorial would benefit from partnerships with local governments which have been divorced from the executive branch in the past.
El Salvador is affected by many partisan divisions which stalls progress. For example, Santa Tecla has the best surveillance system in the country. Mayor Roberto d’Aubuisson, the son of Mayor Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA (the opposition party) told the president that they did not need the territorial control plan. In cases like this in El Salvador, we see that partisan ideology is placed above the benefit of the population. Having the best surveillance system in the country, why aren’t they offering ways to help with the territorial control plan? Why are they not thinking, what can we do to replicate what is working in other municipalities in the country?
Working in a climate of opposition instead of collaboration is a problem. For phase 2 to succeed, will require a long term investment of approximately 10-15 years. This is on average how long it takes to successfully implement a citizen social prevention program.
This phase has been called, “modernization,” and is focused on upgrading the technical equipment used by the civilian national police (PNC) and the Salvadoran armed forces (FAES) to efficiently combat criminal gangs.
Under this phase, both institutions responsible for security will upgrade their equipment, including bulletproof vests, uniforms, technical helmets, tactical materials, radios, patrols, helicopters, and drones with night vision cameras for street corners, which are very efficient in the fight against crime.
The drones for security and surveillance use thermal cameras to identify threats during night hours and in hard-to-reach areas. Drones help to protect security forces, decreasing the degree of exposure for police and military personnel.
This technology will also be instrumental in helping to monitor schools were youth recruitment by gangs occurs.
Phase III also includes salary raises for the security forces.
President Bukele has achieved memorable achievements in the security issue. In the CID Gallup survey, approval was at 91% of the total population, 78% believe that crime has declined compared to previous governments, and Security Minister, Rogelio Rivas, is viewed as a highly respected official in the current government.
Citizen security will require great investment along medium and long-term stages. This is because gangs and maras have controlled the territories for a long time.
In 10 to 15 years we hope to witness tangible improvements and to reach optimal levels as Costa Rica has done, to give an example.
However, if the Plan Control Territorial does not have continuity, gangs and maras could regain the territories.
February 9th, 2020
The reason for the controversy erupted when President Bukele entered the headquarters of the Legislative Assembly along with armed military. The act was seen as a pressure measure for the deputies to approve an 109-million-dollar budget for the strengthening of the police and military forces under Phase III of the Plan Control Territorial. Opponents saw it as a violation of the government’s separation of powers.
Bukele focused on a constitutional article that says that a national emergency can summon deputies to a plenary. Many said the president’s call was not an emergency and refused to show up. But if we focus on statistics of 36 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, are we not living in an epidemic of violence? I consider it an emergency and something that should be voted upon with urgency.
The problem is that the assembly is so accustomed to violence that they have become desensitized.
In a standoff, they decided to ignore the plenary and not show up.
In my opinion, the president’s decision to enter the legislative assembly accompanied by soldiers was a political mistake; it was not a good message for democracy, nationally or internationally.
I think it was a political error by a young government that is shaping itself. However, the president had an opportunity to reflect on it and backed off, which indicates that the institutional framework in El Salvador is working. The opposition referred to the events of February 9th as a coup d’etat, but it was not. In my opinion, it was a political error driven by frustration. Bukele has respected the resolution of the room.
Latina Republic: What is the connection between security and educating the next generation? If educators fear going into unsafe territories, the next generation will not be educated, which will affect their lives and the economy in general. How are phases of this plan prioritized?
The phases cannot be separated from one another. The initial step is the tactical deployment of the police because without police presence, residents, businesses, educators will not feel protected. Public safety cannot be separated from economic efforts. They have to go hand in hand, because if the economic plan goes too far ahead in an area where crime is very high, economic efforts will not be sustainable; companies will leave. Crime must go down for economic development to go up.
Last year I went to Medellín and visited Comuna 13, a place that some years ago was considered the most dangerous area in Medellin. Over the past years, it has undergone a complete transformation. It is no longer a neighborhood associated with gang violence. It was surprising for me to see how graffiti became art and Comuna 13 is a fully recovered community. Theirs is an example of a recovered public space, and of an investment in the social prevention of violence.
Latina Republic: How well does the Salvadoran population know of the details, purposes and steps behind the Plan Control Territorial? The title of the initiative has a militaristic stamp but what you describe is a plan to empower communities that starts with safety as a transition into stability, investment and growth. If I understand the plan correctly, police presence would be transitional, not permanent, and in place to evacuate crime and bring in development. Why are some Salvadorans resistant to supporting this plan?
Unfortunately, the media is constantly blasting the military which gets in the way of understanding the initiative and the purpose behind the plan’s various steps. The current government is dispatching the police into rural areas; previous governments displayed police in the capital, but marginal communities were neglected.
Under this administration, the rural police have been reactivated and they are having positive results, for example, in the area of ??cattle theft which is a common problem.
Latina Republic: What is the current state of the relationship between President Bukele and the United States?
With the United States there was a radical change. Unfortunately, during the FMLN years, we witnessed many clashes between deputies and American leaders who were accused of interference, and imperialism. President Bukele took a total turn with foreign policy and detached himself from those views, which is what most Salvadorans wanted. Now there is a closeness between President Bukele and American leadership and it is good because it allows us to collaborate and consult on new strategies for how to improve our country. There was a disapproval of the February 9th incident, but communication and collaboration have resumed.
Bukele was influential in the Trump administration’s extension of the temporary protected status for thousands of Salvadorans in the United States, granting them reprieve from removal to El Salvador. Since Bukele’s presidency, the State Department has also declared El Salvador safer for American travelers.
Under the leadership of the Minister of Justice and Security, Rogelio Rivas, public security has greatly improved in El Salvador.
In fact, Guatemala’s government asked Minister Rivas to visit Guatemala to learn first-hand about the Territorial Control Plan. This is very good because in 2019, El Salvador was the only country that managed to decrease homicides in the northern triangle while in Guatemala they increased, and in San Pedro Sulas, too. Neither of these countries has been able to contain the homicides as we have done here in El Salvador.
Latina Republic: What are the most urgent problems that Bukele has to solve?
Undoubtedly, public safety. In 9 months, there have been great advances. But I feel that 5 years will not be enough to eradicate maras and gangs.
Safety, health, and streamlining access to medical and social services are important goals. Acquiring the necessary equipment in hospitals and medications, are priorities too.
Latina Republic: El Salvador is conflicted and split over the Plan Control Territorial. Can the nation reconcile over the topic of security? Can Salvadorans put nation above party politics and build a safer country?
There are a multitude of ways, but I believe that President Bukele should bet on statistics and avoid incendiary speeches.
I believe that what El Salvador needs is a conciliatory president. He has to bet more on that, and he has all the fertile ground to succeed. President Bukele has the necessary support from the citizens, who stand behind him, as the polls prove it. He has the potential to write a new chapter in Salvadoran history as a president who unified El Salvador; a country so small that for 30 years has been heavily polarized. We cannot continue with the old polarizing dynamics. I believe that security may be the theme that unifies Salvadorans. Positive changes in security will be the evidence that unites the country.
Latina Republic thanks Luis Contreras for his commentary and analysis.
Mr. Contreras can be contacted via tweeter: @LuisSaxum or via email: [email protected]