[Translation of an article from El Faro of San Salvador for December 7. See original here.]
by Sergio Arauz
After a steady reduction in the armed forces from the signing of the Peace Accord until they were stabilized at around 11,000 men, the administration of President Mauricio Funes has increased the number of men under arms by almost 57 percent, according to data from the National Ministry of Defense.
This growth in the number of soldiers is added to the fact that never before since the signing of the Peace Accords has the military played such an active role in the life of the country as during this first administration of Funes and the FMLN [Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional] that brought him to power. During the present administration, the military has been charged with carrying out public security tasks they had lost in 1992 or that they had never had, like guarding the perimeters of prisons.
Since mid-2009, when Funes assumed the presidency, more than 6,300 new positions have been added to the armed forces, for a total of 17,000 current members. The president had inherited from the administration of Antonio Saca an armed force of a little more than 11,000 men, according to official figures supplied to El Faro by the Defense Ministry.
In salaries, this entails a cost of approximately 25 million dollars more, according to former Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés, a figure confirmed by the new ministry of General Atilio Benítez.
The Legislative Assembly has approved three national budgets during the Funes administration, each of which has included an increase in the appropriation for the Ministry of Defense.
During the Saca administration, the last of four Arena Party governments, the defense budget for salaries varied from 78.5 million to 83.7 million dollars. The budget approved for 2012, in comparison, is 29.4 million dollars more.
Despite the increase in the number of men under arms, the defense budget is not among those topping the list for increases among state institutions. In ten years it has increased by 32 percent, from 109 million in 2002 to 144 million approved for 2012, much lower than that of the Legislative Assembly or the Presidency, for example, which during the same period have tripled their shares of the expenses.
Nor is El Salvador among the countries of the region or the world that dedicate the greatest portion of their economies to military costs.
News of the increase in soldiers apparently surprised the president of the Finance Committee of the Legislative Assembly, FMLN Congresswoman Lorena Peña, who said she did not believe what Defense claims. “What they are telling me is unlikely. I don’t have that information, at least it is not clear in the budget,” she said. Because of her position in the parliament, she was in charge of coordinating and gaining the support of other legislators for approval of the budget two weeks ago.
In contrast with Peña, an expert on government budgets with more than a decade of experience told El Faro that what Defense claims is factual. He spoke on condition of anonymity, since he fears he will lose his job but, he says, there is money to pay for the additional positions. “That is where the taxes for security or the fiscal reform or the loans come in,” he said.
What is paradoxical in the growing controversy during this administration about the military is that when it was a guerrilla force, the FMLN even proposed eliminating the armed forces. It was one point in the debates during the negotiations over the peace accords and the government delegation even went so far as to consider the possibility at one point as a last resort in order to move the conversation forward. After the peace signing, the FMLN, converted into an electoral force, for years maintained reservations on the permanent nature of the armed forces as established by the constitution of the republic.
Although eight years ago, in 2003, the FMLN removed all its reservations on the existence of the armed forces, the Arena Party used in its electoral campaigns of 2004 and 2009 the claim that the FMLN presidential candidates were going to eliminate the military institutions if they won the presidency.
The increase in positions in the armed forces is a response to the need to reinforce the Civilian National Police in combating crime, claims former minister Munguía Payés, who now heads Public Security. “In effect, there are 6,300 new personnel aboard to carry out the mission of the president of the republic of taking action in the area of public security,” General Munguía Payés asserts.
Colonel Ángel González Sermeño, head of the Defense Ministry Communications and Protocol Center, confirmed that the Munguía Payés administration began with some 11,000 soldiers and that the current minister of defense will assume the position with an additional 6,300 men. The first new recruits began their duty in mid-2010 as guards outside prisons in mixed groups of police and soldiers. A battalion is now in charge of guarding the perimeters and regulating entry and exit from penitentiaries. Another battalion patrols border areas and a third is among groups of police and soldiers that patrol the parts of the country with the greatest numbers of homicides and other crimes.
The idea does not end there. In the middle of this year, President Funes himself announced a plan for massive recruitment that will attempt to remove more than 5,000 at-risk youths from the streets to receive military training and form part of the military for an undetermined period of time.
According to Funes and his ministers of safety and defense, the purpose of the military recruitment would be the protection and training of the at-risk youths in tasks of civil protection in such a way that they serve as support for the country in tasks of prevention and reduction of risks. The youths would be sent to “Civilian Training Centers” created with these objectives and administered by the armed forces. Although their incorporation into these tasks would be obligatory, they would be paid a monthly salary, Funes said.
If the plan is put into effect, the Funes’ term will end with some 22,000 Salvadorans enlisted in the armed forces, a figure somewhat higher than the 21,000 police officers that the PNC has.