El Salvador’s Tough Policing Isn’t What It Looks Like
Shootings reported as enfrentamientos, or confrontations, often mask killings of civilians and other misconduct.
“Once again, an armed confrontation between elements of the National Civil Police (PNC) and a gang member left one person dead.” This news, part of a brief crime report in a Salvadoran online media outlet, could easily be lost among the other daily crime coverage in a country with an average of nine murders a day in 2018, often related to gang violence. But one word sticks out in this article of just over 100 words, published in May 2018, leading careful Salvadoran readers to question if there is more to the story.
In the original Spanish, the encounter is described as an enfrentamiento, meaning a confrontation or a clash. A literal reading of the word indicates an exchange between two parties on equal footing. But in El Salvador, decades of tough police measures against gangs have led to a pattern of extrajudicial killings, sometimes even against civilians with no gang ties, according to a 2018 United Nations report. These killings are typically blandly reported as enfrentamientos, when in reality they often represent police overreach and subsequent cover-ups. And while the original intent may have been to control gang violence, enfrentamientos and similar tactics have now become part of the problem: In 2013, for every police officer killed in an enfrentamiento, an average of 4.33 citizens lost their lives. Between January and June 2018, that ratio rose to 125.
When it comes to a police report about an enfrentamiento, “generally, it’s a lie,” said Verónica Reyna, a security expert at the Passionist Social Service, a Salvadoran human rights organization. “It’s clear to people that the events are not happening in this way.” In many cases, eyewitnesses have disputed official police accounts of enfrentamientos, reporting instead that the victims were unarmed, outnumbered, or had already surrendered. And this is exactly what happened in the case of the man reported killed in the May 2018 report. His girlfriend told Foreign Policy that he was not a gang member, did not have a criminal record, and never carried a weapon. The police have refused to answer her questions, and she has since given up her investigation.
Enfrentamientos were rare in El Salvador before 2014, with only 39 registered deaths in 2013, according to police statistics. In the next four years, from 2014 to 2017, the police recorded more than 1,400 people killed in enfrentamientos. More than 90 percent of the victims were alleged gang members.
While it is possible that some enfrentamientos are real shootouts, Reyna said, there are telltale signs when the police have not acted in legitimate defense: no signs of harm to police officers supposedly confronted by an aggressive group, reports from local residents that deny that the victims were involved in a gang, and irregularities in the crime scene that point to evidence being tampered with or planted. The disproportionate number of civilian victims compared to police deaths suggests that the police often use force inappropriately.
One of the first cases of an enfrentamiento that was later revealed to be a cover-up occurred on March 26, 2015, when police killed eight alleged gang members on a coffee farm after supposedly being confronted and attacked. Four months later, the Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro revealed inconsistencies with the official version of the story. Some of the young men appeared to have been unarmed—the report alleges that several guns were planted—and police records show no officer being reported hurt after the supposed shootout. Meanwhile, autopsies revealed that some of the victims had been shot with up to 20 bullets, in some cases in places that did not make sense given the way that their bodies were found at the scene. One of the slain young men was inaccurately identified by the police as a gang member.
Cases of alleged police cover-ups coded as enfrentamientos have since stacked up. In February 2016, four alleged gang members were killed in a confrontation in a town controlled by the Barrio 18 gang where residents report frequent police raids. El Faro reported that residents saw the teenagers surrender and that one of those killed had no gang ties. In April 2017, a deaf man was killed by police in an alleged enfrentamiento; a judge later determined the case to be a homicide, because the victim did not have gun residue on his hands and the gun found at the crime scene did not have his fingerprints. The Salvadoran media outlet Revista Factum also reported that residents denied the man was a gang member. An August 2017 investigation by the same outlet showed these cases were not isolated incidents, but rather part of a pattern of abuse by the police. Conversations in a WhatsApp group with about 40 police officers showed that extrajudicial killings were planned and discussed in detail.
El Salvador’s police force has continued to insist that all enfrentamientos are cases of legitimate defense. “We are not in the position as an institution to cover up or tolerate these types of acts,” said Howard Cotto, the current PNC director, in a January 2018 press conference, in which he asserted that the institution has not found any cases of extrajudicial killings by police officers. PNC did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
To understand the growing prevalence of enfrentamientos, one has to look further back into El Salvador’s recent record on security policies. In 2003, after years of gang violence, then-President Francisco Flores introduced the “mano dura” or “iron fist” plan, a set of tough-on-crime measures that included police raids, stricter prison sentences, and other anti-gang measures. That year, about 87 percent of Salvadorans viewed the security plan favorably, according to a public opinion poll by Central American University in San Salvador. Because of its perceived success, nearly 80 percent of people surveyed said they thought the plan was necessary even though they recognized that it violated the country’s constitution.
Today, when it comes to police overreach, many Salvadorans seem to be willing to look the other way once again. Despite the public revelations of cover-ups of extrajudicial killings, there is no significant public outcry to examine police conduct—in large part because gangs are still Public Enemy No. 1 in the national psyche. On Feb. 8, the Salvadoran congressman Guillermo Gallegos, a longtime supporter of mano dura tactics, posted on Facebook: “I join the campaign: ‘If I see you kill a criminal, I didn’t see you.’” His comments were met with criticism from human rights defenders and support from proponents of tough policing. Two days later, he tweeted, “I’m not afraid of being criticized, because I’m also not afraid of GANG MEMBERS and even less of taking extreme measures for wanting to live in PEACE.”
Gallegos’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Salvadorans who believe that any repressive measures taken against gangs are justified, even if they are extrajudicial killings passed off as enfrentamientos. According to a 2017 study by researchers from Florida International University and Central American University, nearly 35 percent of Salvadorans approve of using extrajudicial killings to fight crime.
But the reality is that the mano dura approach has been unsuccessful. Instead of improving conditions in the country, it has further fueled insecurity by traumatizing communities and perpetuating violence. In 2018, more than 3,300 people were killed, which translates to roughly 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest rates in the world. It’s less than the 6,656 people killed in the country in 2015, the most violent year on record since the country’s civil war ended in 1992. But homicides still have not dropped below 2,100 per year since 2002.
Despite evidence of mano dura’s failure, Salvadorans are still looking for a quick fix to the country’s deep-seated security problems. But there are some indications that attitudes might be slowly shifting. During the country’s recent presidential campaign, candidates emphasized rehabilitation and investment in violence prevention programs in their platforms. On Feb. 3, former San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele was elected president. He took office on June 1. Bukele, 37, has claimed he will take a new approach by focusing on the root causes of violence and reviving public spaces, but his proposals remain vague. His party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity, has been a longtime supporter of mano dura tactics and seems to be pushing him to follow that path. On June 21, Bukele sent 2,500 officers and 3,000 soldiers to San Salvador and other cities. Earlier in the month, he had touted mass arrests on Twitter. Both actions are reminiscent of the past 16 years of mano dura. If he chooses to continue to reach back into the past, he will likely end up with the same disappointing results.