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El Salvador Update: Security Top Challenge as Sánchez Cerén Takes Office

Sánchez Cerén

Sánchez Cerén has vowed to improve security after he takes office. (AP)

May 30, 2014

Salvador Sánchez Cerén takes the helm as El Salvador’s new president on June 1, but his government will face the old problem of security as a major public concern. An uptick in violence marked the period leading up to the former guerilla commander’s presidential inauguration. And although his soon-to-be-predecessor President Mauricio Funes leaves office with positive approval ratings, more than two-thirds of Salvadorans feel crime worsened under his watch.  

Keeping a Gang Truce at Arm’s Length

For a period of Funes’ administration, El Salvador did see homicide rates drop. The national police reported that the murder rate decreased by 41 percent between 2012 and the prior year, and attributed the sharp decline to a truce between rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha (M-18) and Barrio 18. The agreement gained the support of the Organization of American States, while the Funes administration denied serving as an architect of the truce. But six months into the agreement, General and then-Justice Minister Munguía Payés admitted a direct role—though Funes continued to reject the idea that his government organized the deal, instead saying it served as a “facilitator.” Munguía Payés was removed from his post in May 2013 and, while total homicides remained lower in 2013 compared to 2012, the murder rate began to creep back up by the end of last year

Funes wasn’t the only one to keep the truce at arm’s length. Candidates for the 2014 presidential election either attacked or distanced themselves from the truce, as did Sánchez Cerén, who, like Funes, represents the guerilla-group-turned-political-party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The reason for the distance comes down, in part, to public opinion; a study published last week by El Salvador’s University of Central America found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed felt the truce has done little to nothing to reduce crime. The same poll stated that 51.7 percent of Salvadorans consider fighting crime the top priority for the new government, well ahead of creating jobs (17.6 percent) and improving the economy (10.4 percent).

Security and a New Administration

During the electoral race and a January presidential debate, Sánchez Cerén pledged better training and equipment for police as a means to combat crime. In March, after winning the election, he said his government would not negotiate with gangs

Meanwhile, the truce faltered and homicides rose, with 794 murders during the first quarter of 2014, compared to 551 in the last three months of last year. On May 23 alone—less than two weeks before Sánchez Cerén’s inauguration—the death toll reached at least 30, with two massacres claiming six lives each. Salvadoran media outlet El Faro reports that Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo said the murders were part of a plan to destabilize the country. The article also tracks the minister’s efforts, since Munguía Payés’ departure, to close off dialogue between M-18 and Barrio 18. Over the course of that weekend, the number of homicides reached 81 in total, drawing condemnation from the United Nations. By Monday, Funes acknowledged the truce was dead

A few days later, on May 29, Sánchez Cerén said the army would continue supporting police efforts to fight crime for the first six months of his presidency.  Over 6,000 soldiers have supported police efforts since November 2009. The president-elect also pledged improvements inside the National Civil Police (PNC), such as creating community-policing services. And his cabinet will see continuity from his predecessor, including Munguía Payés as defense minister. Benito Lara, a former FMLN legislator and ex-guerilla fighter, will serve as security minister.