Police and Organized Crime in El Salvador

José Álvarez Ramírez / CC BY 3.0

On May 19 the Inter-American Dialogue and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies hosted a discussion on the political influence of organized crime in El Salvador, with a focus on the national civil police. The event was centered on the new book by Salvadoran journalist, former diplomat, and now fellow at American University, Héctor Silva Ávalos. His book, Infiltrators: A Chronicle Of Corruption In The National Civil Police Of El Salvador, highlights the corruption that public institutions in Central America face. Also participating in the discussion was Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Steven Dudley, director of the think tank InSight Crime.

The dialogue began with Congressma McGovern lauding Silva’s ability to describe the early mistakes that most affected El Salvador, saying that Silva’s book was a constructive critique to break corruption. From a US political view, he saw that Washington could have been a more “constructive force” in preventing the decline of El Salvador. Adding to that comment, Steven Dudley said that the United States has much less clout in El Salvador than it thinks. In terms of corruption in the police force, Dudley discussed the fact that there is no alternative to the police; therefore they have created a monopoly of force.

Héctor Silva Ávalos concluded discussing the contradictions he saw within the national civil police that he wanted to document in his book. He saw that corruption within the police force did not involve isolated cases of police performance. Rather, it was a full-blown culture, where the criminals – and those that were supposed to be punishing them – were partners. Silva made the point that although the situation in El Salvador is dire (Congressman McGovern shared that there were more deaths in El Salvador now than during the war), he still has hope for the future. Silva hopes that the “vicious cycle” of leadership, will come to an end.

The question and answer session afterwards, led by the director of the American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, Eric Hershberg, highlighted the role of non-governmental actors. Silva discussed the strong civil society in El Salvador which he says was harmed by the peace accord. Congressman McGovern went on to say that the peace accords were seen as an amnesty for all, leading to the mentality that if we can erase the sins of the past, we can also erase those to come. Congressman McGovern discussed the importance of accountability, concluding that if people are held accountable, then that is a clear signal of the changing times.

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