Criminal Violence and Transitional Justice in El Salvador

Tamar Ziff / Inter-American Dialogue

On July 2, the Inter-American Dialogue and Counterpart International partnered to host ”Criminal Violence and Transitional Justice in El Salvador.” The discussion was moderated by Michael Camilleri, Director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Rule of Law Program, and featured speakers Mileydi Guilarte, chief of Counterpart International’s El Salvador Rights and Dignity Project; Leonor Arteaga, Senior Officer at the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and a former member of the El Salvador National Commission for the Search of Disappeared Persons (COMBUSQUEDA); and Chuck Call, associate professor of international peace and conflict resolution at American University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Speakers discussed the effects of the 2016 repeal of the 1993 Amnesty Law and the relationship between prosecuting past and present crimes in El Salvador.

The speakers presented varying perspectives on the cause and effect of Salvadoran crime. According to Call, fear was a predominant factor in impunity for crimes in El Salvador, driving the rise in private security services and personal gun ownership and constraining actors in the justice system (such as the PNC, prosecutors, and judges) from properly going after criminals. Call emphasized that the status quo will not change with more funding for courts, forensic labs, police equipment, or other traditional institutions that are supposed to enforce the rule of law; instead, Call said that efforts should be made to support the demand of El Salvadorans on the ground for justice. The repeal of the 1993 Amnesty Law is a move in that direction, allowing the people of El Salvador who have suffered from its civil war to advocate for applying justice against war criminals. Foreign governments and agencies like USAID and the United Nations should support the judicial processes involved in prosecuting these cases at the grassroots level.

Guilarte underscored that impunity in El Salvador is both a historic and present condition, defining its existence from the Amnesty Law to the current anarchy of the maras (criminal gangs). She added that domestic political polarization and related political instability are factors that exacerbate El Salvador’s inability to adequately address crime. Administration turnover is high, with changes in administrative agendas obstructing the implementation of long-term policy strategy. Finally, she discussed the importance of dialogue between high-level American officials and those in Central America to improve the efficacy of aid.

Leonor Arteaga argued that crime in El Salvador should be seen more as a humanitarian crisis than merely a security issue. The violence in El Salvador matches that of many countries during wartime, and hence the approach taken by the international community (and especially the United States) in assisting El Salvador should emphasize humanitarian assistance. The maras are the primary drivers of this war-like violence; in many middle-class and poor neighborhoods, gangs impose their own systems of absolute control. Arteaga stated that the overturning of the Amnesty Law brought the issues of impunity and necessary punishment to the public discourse in El Salvador. As a result, national courts are becoming empowered to combat crime and are functioning as increasingly influential actors in salvaging El Salvador from its current cycle of violence and impunity.

During the Q&A session, questions revolved around various methods to address the rampant crime and impunity in El Salvador. Could the private sector play a role in stabilizing the country? How do human rights considerations play into confronting the maras? What about projects aimed at violence prevention through education and early intervention? Guilarte responded that many of these alternative approaches were often socially misperceived; for instance, advocates for human rights often become criticized as apologists for street gangs. She also discussed the private sector challenges in creating inclusive employment due to the heavily divided nature of El Salvadoran society and the conflicting opinions on how to re-integrate former gang members. Arteaga also affirmed the importance of the private sector as an influential actor in El Salvador, especially at the local community level. Providing employment opportunities, according to Arteaga, is vital for reducing violence and recidivism. Call noted the uniqueness of El Salvador’s private sector among other Latin American nations in reaching out and maintaining a positive consistency towards re-employing former offenders.

Watch the recording of this event on C-SPAN. 

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