Addressing the Problem of Violent Crime in Central America: Citizen Security Based on Human Rights by José Miguel Cruz

José Miguel Cruz

Are human rights irreconcilable with public safety? The apparent and highly publicized success of Nayib Bukele’s State of Exception in El Salvador has placed this question in the public debate across the region. Bukele and his officials have explicitly declared that human rights impede the safety and well-being of the population. The Salvadoran government says that to reduce violence and increase security, especially among those forgotten by the system, it is necessary to ignore human rights and eliminate the legal protections afforded by the Salvadoran Constitution. Those rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Such a view is not new. Nor is Bukele’s security model. In El Salvador, the efforts to discredit the moral ascendency of human rights started right after the Peace Accords, signed in 1992. Those efforts crystallized in repeated campaigns to disregard due process mechanisms in the fight against criminal violence throughout the 1990s. The campaigns were led by political leaders and government officials who denounced the protection of rights as obstacles to reducing the then-rising levels of crime. One of the first official salvos in those campaigns was the “Emergency Transitory Law Against Delinquency and Organized Crime” (Ley de Emergencia Contra la Delincuencia y el Crimen Organizado). The National Assembly passed this law in March 1996. The bill ignored some constitutional guarantees for detainees and enabled the judicial system to prosecute juvenile offenders as adults. The law’s passing was surrounded by initiatives to increase the penalties for certain crimes, a debate to approve the death penalty, and an attempt to enact a law authorizing the creation of armed civilian patrols to fight crime.

This tough-on-crime approach and its narratives reached their maximum manifestation in July 2003 with the enactment of the Mano Dura Plan. The policy was accompanied by an anti-gang law that banned gang membership. It empowered the police to detain any youth based solely on their looks and without any evidence of committing a crime. After the 2004 presidential elections, the policy received an upgrade in the Super Mano Dura Plan, which increased the deployment of anti-gang units in the communities and sought to enact new anti-gang legislation.

These programs resulted in resounding popularity and electoral victories for their proponents. However, time and again, after the initial hype settled, the punitive policies left a trail of more violence in the streets and widespread corruption in the institutions. Crime skyrocketed in the aftermath of government crackdowns. Furthermore, in the absence of policies addressing the underlying issues of insecurity, criminal justice institutions that had been reformed to advance the rule of law ended up contributing to the spiral of violence, abusing people’s rights, and perpetuating impunity.

In every sense, Bukele’s security model is an extreme rehash of prior unsuccessful policies. Those plans not only sought to solve the problem of insecurity through draconian measures and disregard for human rights. They also constituted a political ploy to win popular sympathies and votes. As of now, Bukele has succeeded in both. But if history provides any lessons, it is very likely that the ostensible feat of disarticulating gangs and reducing the number of crimes will be followed by new forms of criminal organizations and renewed waves of violence.

The success of Bukele’s State of Exception not only rests on the radical and pervasive implementation of punitive crackdowns. It also stands on systematic but secret deals with gangs and criminal groups. As several reputable sources have documented, the Salvadoran government has been able to neutralize a potential backlash to its heavy-handed actions by negotiating with the leaders of those same groups.

Yet again, this is not a new approach to addressing the violent crime problem in El Salvador. The most well-known case is the gang truce brokered by the government in 2012. It succeeded in reducing homicides for nearly sixteen months. But it gave gangs enough space and perks to reorganize and tighten their grip on the Salvadoran population. Clandestine negotiations with criminal groups have been repeatedly used in El Salvador and other countries to wash the face of political leaders eager to show some results on the security front. In reality, Bukele’s security strategy is a hybrid version of two types of approaches that have proven disastrous for citizen security in the past. Moreover, this strategy has the aggravating circumstance that, as of today, there is no public institution in the country with the capacity to supervise the actions of the government, stop its abuses, and protect the rights of the most vulnerable.

Then, is there an alternative to Bukele’s human rights-suppressing strategy? The short answer is yes. The long answer is that any public plan that systematically abuses the rights of a group of individuals is not a security policy because it builds on the systemic vulnerability of many. The State of Exception bases its success on the possibility that any individual or institution with political power can subdue a person with the excuse of their own private security.

A successful yet human rights-based citizen security strategy must be built attending to the structural factors —economic, institutional, and cultural— that have historically produced violence. It should start by recovering the democratic principles that informed the spirit of the Peace Accords. Those same principles promoted institutional reforms in the criminal justice system. A constructive citizen security strategy should also devote substantial resources to generate human and social capital in the many underserved communities of the region, which represent most of the population. It entails large and sustained investments in education and social services.

This is not a simple task, as it is also a political endeavor. Addressing the multifaceted causes of insecurity takes time. It requires political resolve and strategic patience to transform state institutions’ engagement with underserved communities affected by insecurity. It might also require political processes resembling disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs (DDR) to help gangs and criminal groups to dissolve their organizations and return to lawful means of sustenance and development. As part of these processes, it is necessary to empower communities and social organizations that work to reduce criminal governance spaces in those same communities. It also requires strategic coordination with law enforcement and criminal justice institutions to switch to restorative justice models.

Civil society organizations have a role in this strategy. Churches and religious groups have already been working hard to transform the lives of individuals and communities. Some of them and human rights organizations have also been crucial in defending the most vulnerable and promoting actions that place people’s rights at the center of their security. We need to learn from them to secure the future.