Central America: Northern Triangle countries are being militarized

Repressive strategies led by former soldiers are the new norm in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

[Translation of an article from ContraPunto of San Salvador for December 14, 2011. See original here and related articles here, here and here.]

By Gerardo Arbaiza

The Central American Northern Triangle, consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has been found in several studies to be the most violent region of the world not involved in an armed conflict.

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras is in first place in the world in homicides, with a rate of 78 for every 100,000 inhabitants, followed by El Salvador with 66 and, three levels below, Guatemala, with a total of 41 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

The World Health Organization considers a country to be in an epidemic when the rate of deaths from any cause reaches ten for every 100,000 inhabitants.

The strategy these countries have adopted recently to reduce these figures is directed at taking members of the armed forces and using them together with police forces for tasks of citizen security.

But in addition the governments of this trio of nations has set out to reinforce this strategy by bringing in military officers, active or retired, to head their respective ministries of security.

The first to do so was Honduras, where last September 10 President Porfirio Lobo dismissed Óscar Álvarez, who had been leading an effort to purge the Honduran police, the agency with the least credibility in that Central American nation.

In Álvarez’s place came Pompeyo Bonilla, a retired military officer, who within a few months deployed elements of the Honduran army to carry out security, with the authority to make arrests and perform searches. This thanks to a legislative decree approved unanimously by the Honduran assembly.

Then came El Salvador, where, after more than 15 days and an icy confrontation between President Mauricio Funes and the party that brought him to power, the FMLN, David Munguía Payés, one-time minister of national defense, was named to replace Manuel Melgar, FMLN activist, as minister of security and justice.

After almost a month in office and meetings with migration authorities and secretaries general of the political parties, Munguía Payés announced that he will need new legal tools to combat gangs, which he accused of being “the principal source of violence in the country.”

According to Cambio Democrático (CD) congressman Douglas Avilés, the minister of security suggested to them that current laws were too  “garantistas” with the gangs [too concerned with guaranteeing their rights] and that separate legislation was needed for them, segregating them from common criminals.

In addition to these proposals, Munguía Payés has announced the formation of an anti-gang division of the National Civil Police, which he indicated would be sworn in toward the end of this month and will be in training for some time to be qualified.

The reinforcement of a security strategy in the region with a militaristic focus is evident in the announcement by the president-elect of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, that he will appoint a former general of the kaibil [a special forces unit specializing in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency], Ulises Anzueto, as minister of defense.

Pérez Molina is expected likewise to visit El Salvador during the week and to hold meetings with Mauricio Funes and Porfirio Lobo to “strengthen the security mechanisms” being implemented in the region.

The rule of law stands in the way of the state of exception

Analysts consulted by ContraPunto agree that the militarization of security in the Northern Triangle is a strategy orchestrated by the United States for the purpose of countering drug trafficking on its periphery.

Roberto Cañas, a signer of the Peace Accords in 1992, indicated that part of this strategy can be seen in Otto Pérez Molina’s visit to El Salvador with the intention of “articulating a plan for combating crime,” this being understood as combating drug trafficking and the flow of drugs into the United States.

He predicted as well that with this new focus for security, the commanders of the National Civil Police who come from the army will have a more active role in supporting “territorial wars” with the gangs and that the reforms Munguía Payés will propose to the Legislative Assembly will face no obstacles to their approval.

“The background to all this is electoral and nobody is going to appear to be against measures that promise to lower the crime statistics… Only a politician with suicidal tendencies would be opposed to these measures,” Cañas asserted.

Security analyst Óscar Fernández explained on the other hand that combat against drug trafficking in the region, which is led by the United States, hides political intentions of imposing a “wall of containment toward the north” against other phenomena like illegal immigration and money laundering.

He also declared that if the route of drug trafficking is from south to north, that of illegal weapons is from north to south, due to the increase in the local drug markets in Latin American countries, which results in an increase in homicides committed by the gangs, which the governments use to justify strategies of a military nature to combat them.

“What is being attempted basically is to replace the rule of law with the state of exception. I don’t know whether President Funes shares this, because if he does he would be making a serious mistake,” Fernández argued.

Roberto Cañas believes El Salvador’s security policy should begin with national agreement and the conviction that improvement in public security will begin with consensus and not with state elements or authoritarian ideas that only evoke repression.

Óscar Fernández meanwhile argues that in order to implement high-level security policies, the state itself should be conceived anew and not thought of as authoritarian states but as strong states that also attend to social demands as a way of preventing crime.

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