Thursday, January 28, 2016

New appointees in El Salvador focus on crushing homicide and corruption issues (Jan. 28, 2015)

As the gang wars in Central America fuel record murder rates (see yesterday's post) and spur a tsunami of migrants attempting to escape rampant violence, the organizations themselves are evolving into international criminal networks. Gangs are increasingly acting with more discipline, and even infiltrating the ranks of El Salvador's institutions, reports Foreign Policy.

A series of new security and justice officials in El Salvador draw attention to the country's somewhat desperate situation.

Over the past year and a half or so, ever since the unravelling of a government-gang truce in 2014, violence in El Salvador has escalated catastrophically. The country currently takes the cake for the most murderous in the Western Hemisphere, reports InSight Crime. Last year there were at least 6,640 murders.

With a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000, to say that El Salvador has a problem is somewhat of an understatement.

So it's not surprising that the newly named Minister of Justice and Security, former head of the National Civil Police (PNC) Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, said that reducing homicides and extortion will be the priority for the new security leadership, reports Diario Co Latino. He admits the homicides have caused a widespread sense of insecurity and need to be targeted, reports El Salvador.

The homicide rates have distracted from other police achievements he said, according to La Página.

Last year, with gang violence already spiking homicide rates, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced a militarized security policy and deployed troops to combat crime in the most dangerous neighborhoods. Members of El Salvador's main street gangs, Barrio 18 and MS13, increased attacks on security forces, which have responded aggressively. (See post for June 22, 2015.)

The newly named PCN chief Howard Augusto Cotto also has his work cut out of him: Last year 63 members of the PCN were killed in line of duty -- and 358 officers quit, part of a rising trend of abandonment of a force that's increasingly in danger of gang attacks, reports La Prensa Gráfica. A police protest yesterday demanding salary increases was joined by the forces sent out to keep order, reports El Faro.

And reports of extrajudicial killings by security forces in the country keep piling up. (See post for July 23, 2015, for example.) El Faro reports that the former head of El Salvador's Institute of Forensic Medicine has detected "a pattern in the assassination of gang members, which makes him think the police and armed forces are committing extrajudicial killings." InSight Crime has the piece in English.

In terms of historical human rights, Cotto is following his predecessor and dragging his feet with an international order to capture 17 military officers accused of murdering 8 people in 1989, reports El Faro.

On the justice end, El Salvador's new attorney general, Douglas Meléndez, took office earlier this month, promising to differentiate himself from his predecesor. He emphasized transparency, independent action, and welcomed the possibility of working with an international commission, reports El Faro.

This week he denounced dozens of cases of nepotism within the Prosecutor's office. This adds to earlier reports he made of possible infiltration of organized crime, irregularities in hiring, and unpaid rent in several locations, reports Contracts will be examined one by one in order to check that personnel is apt for the jobs in question, he promised, according to La Página.

This week the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced a program to train officials in anti-corruption techniques in El Salvador. The three-year project will be funded by the U.S., part of ongoing efforts to target corruption in the region, but is a far cry from the kind of heavily resourced, international body with broad investigative powers of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, reports InSight Crime. El Salvador has yet to accept pressures for any kind of international mechanism that might bring its spiraling level of homicides and violence under control.

News Briefs

  • Meanwhile, over in Guatemala anti-corruption prosecutors seem to have set their sights on the municipal level. A former mayor and several local officials were arrested on corruption charges, a possible theme in the year to come, reports InSight Crime.
  • And, on the subject of homicide stats, the Mexican Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal A.C. released it's annual city homicide rate roundup. Caracas "wins" the 2015 ranking, with a rate of 119.87 intentional homicide per 100 thousand inhabitants. While San Pedro Sula (111.03) moved into second place, by achieving a significant decline in the number of homicides.
  • Mexico's battle with corruption is lagging, reports the Wall Street Journal. In the just released Transparency International corruption perceptions index for 2015, Mexico remained the worst-rated among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 
  • The OAS authorized a a special mission to Haiti to assist with resolving a political stalemate that has postponed elections indefinitely and with just 10 days until the president's mandate ends, reports the Associated Press. The measure was taken in response to an urgent request from outgoing President Michel Martelly.
  • The WHO will hold a special session today on the Zika virus. Experts are urging the U.N. agency to act quickly to contain the spread of the mosquito-transmitted virus that is believed to cause serious birth defects, reports Reuters.
  • The outbreak of the virus in Brazil has caught the healthcare system off guard, as thousands of babies with microcephaly impose a new burden on already deficient hospitals in a public health system suffering from budget cuts because of government shortfalls and an economic recession, reports Reuters. But the link between Zika and microcephaly might not be as direct as believed, according to the New York Times. Brazilian researchers are attempting to study the issue, even as they battle the spread of the virus.
  • Venezuela's opposition leader and President of the National Assembly Henry Ramos Allup "is driven by one central goal: to remove Mr. Chávez’s political heirs from power and install a market economy that he says will extricate Venezuela from a meltdown," reports the Wall Street Journal. But not all of the opposition backs his approach, others, such as Julio Borges, the head of the moderate Justice First party, advocate more technocratic and economy-focused policies. Some analysts say Ramos' hardline approach is only deepening an already polarized political scene, but others support his confrontation with President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri cut electric subsidies, a move that could save billions but also anger consumers already hit by austerity policies, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Macri appointed a former IMF official to Argentina's financial crimes agency, in a bid to improve relations with the agency's U.S. counterpart and the national effort to fight money laundering and corruption, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian police arrested a number of people and searched the offices of a contractor they say used the construction of a beachfront apartment complex as a way to pay bribes and launder money, reports the Wall Street Journal. The name of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been connected to the building, though authorities have neither confirmed nor denied that he is under investigation in relation to the case.
  • Mexico inaugurated a series of national debates on the issue of marijuana laws, an initiative that was launched after the Supreme Court potentially opened the door to legalizing pot for recreational and medical use last year, reports AFP.

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