Community-Oriented Policing in El Salvador

Despite being the smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is among the most violent nations in the world.  El Salvador went through a period of dictatorship and civil war during the 1980’s that formally ended in 1992, but the deterioration of its economic situation after its peace agreement led to large-scale migration.  During the same period, the country received numerous deportees from the USA who had fled during the civil war.  These repatriated deportees formed the infamous gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18, which remain the main security concerns of El Salvador today.

The peace accords of 1992 brought about a period of reformation that led to a militarized and iron-fisted approach to the police forces of El Salvador.  Police would often incur brutality, failing to differentiate between different gang members and their respective crimes, and were often corrupt, even helping the gangs.  These factors led to an utter lack of trust in the police forces.  In an attempt to alleviate these issues, a ‘community police’ program was deployed in 2014 that oversaw the training of 21,000 police members, focused primarily on the country’s capital – San Salvador.  These efforts of community policing implementation are best described as intermittent, as the police remains heavily militarized and levels of trust in the police by the general public remain low.

Perceptions on Security and Insecurity
Outlining the perception on security and insecurity in El Salvador can best be described by the short list of places where citizens do feel safe; namely their own homes.  Public places like schools, parks, and malls are perceived as being very unsafe by Salvadorans.  Youth in El Salvador are especially vulnerable to gang recruitment and violence, as gangs have infiltrated many schools, leaving youth with two options: join a gang or migrate.  Women and girls are particularly vulnerable in El Salvador, experiencing marginalization and gender inequalities and often being the target of domestic violence, rape, abuse, and groping in the streets.  Other violent crimes that are frequently reported are extortion, burglaries, carjacking, and disappearances.  All things considered, criminal activity (particularly at the hands of gangs) is the principle security challenge in El Salvador.

Security Providers
Security providers in El Salvador are divided into three formal actors and three main informal ones.  The formal security providers are the National Civilian Police (PNC), the military, and the Community Development Association (ADESCOs).  ADESCOs are community associations that promote development at the community level, working with the municipality to coordinate and implement projects.  ADESCO has an important presence in the security plans of communities, particularly in rural areas.  PNC and ADESCO cooperate by maintaining constant communication and informing police about suspicious individuals and activities in the community.

Informal security providers within El Salvador include its main gangs, drug traffickers and ex-guerilla vigilantes.  The gangs offer protection to a certain degree within the territories they control, and are reported to use brutal punishments (such as cutting off people’s hands for stealing).  Leaving a gang’s territory presents a threat to citizens, as they may fall prey to rival gangs or other criminals.  On the other hand, drug traffickers manage to offer security in specific communities which they attempt to fully control and keep off the radar; traffickers will often attempt to intimidate gang members into leaving communities in order to minimize police or military confrontation.  Finally, ex-guerrilla vigilantes have formed community-designated ‘security councils’ that take responsibility for patrolling communities to keep the streets safe.  These types of security configurations are most frequently found in communities historically connected to the resistance during the war, and the security providers are usually the community members themselves.

Current Status of Community-Oriented Policing
The efforts that have been made to implement community policing in El Salvador have not produced expected results.  This stems mainly from the lack of trust and understanding between the community and the police, largely resulting from the police’s inclination towards heavy-handed tactics and limited understanding of both security needs and gender issues in society.  Thus, the very idea of security needs to be addressed and understood in El Salvador before community-policing projects can be successful.


Source: ICT4COP Research, NMBU

Photo: Police students graduate at the National Academy of Public Security in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, 2018. Photo credit: Erika J Rojas Ospina

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