The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) works to keep Americans safe at home by countering international crime, illegal drugs, and instability abroad. INL helps countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores.
On February 3, 2019, Salvadorans elected former mayor of San Salvador and third party candidate, Nayib Bukele, to be their next president. This will be the first time since the 1992 peace accords that neither ARENA nor the FMLN, the two traditional political parties, will control the presidency. Bukele, age 37, takes office in June 2019. He ran a social media heavy campaign focusing on anti-corruption, a message which resonated with many Salvadorans. Bukele will assume the presidency at a time when homicides have fallen 52 percent from their peak 2015 levels, ending 2018 at a rate of 50 per 100,000.
Despite this consistent drop in homicides over the past three years, El Salvador’s murder rate remains among the highest in the world, and the number of people reported missing raises concerns about hidden killings. Public perception of insecurity remains high, and ongoing gang violence, widespread extortion, and a lack of economic opportunity continue to drive irregular migration from El Salvador to the United States. Nonetheless, the numbers of Salvadoran unaccompanied children and family units arriving at U.S. borders are the lowest they have been in five years. INL partners with the Salvadoran government to build Salvadoran capacity to combat gangs, disrupt smugglers, and directly address security-related drivers of migration, reducing the incentives for Salvadorans to engage in illegal migration to the United States. INL programs are consistent with security and governance priorities of the U.S. Strategy for Central America and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and complement efforts under the Central American governments’ Alliance for Prosperity.
In 2015 El Salvador developed a national security plan, “Plan El Salvador Seguro” (PESS), focused on place-based violence prevention, and INL’s foreign assistance targets the same geographic areas as the PESS. INL works closely with the National Civil Police to institutionalize an intelligence-led policing strategy under the “Model Police Precinct” (MPP) program that provides equipment and advisory support to help the police engage with the community and target specific threats, moving away from the “mano dura” approach of the past. In 2018, El Salvador made permanent a series of “extraordinary measures” strengthening prison security and police operations, which contributed to the significant drop in homicides.
In recent years, El Salvador made notable strides to combat corruption and impunity. Former Attorney General Melendez and his anti-corruption unit indicted three former Presidents on corruption charges. Former President Funes absconded to Nicaragua in 2016, and in 2018 former President Saca pleaded guilty to corruption and money laundering charges; he is the first former Salvadoran president to be convicted for acts of corruption committed during his term of office. Former Attorney General Gonzalez was also convicted on corruption charges.
In 2016, the government implemented a security tax on high-income earners and telecommunications providers, and used the tax revenue to fund police salary bonuses, supplement the Attorney General’s budget, and support prevention activities, however, adequate resources for the security services (as well as education, infrastructure, health care, etc.) remain a challenge.
Border Security – INL is working with the National Civil Police (PNC) and migration authorities to professionalize border security, including improved infrastructure for police and K-9 inspection units at the border with Guatemala. INL also supports the Grupo Conjunto Inteligencia Fronteriza (GCIF), a multinational border intelligence group that includes Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, and USG personnel. The GCIF allows CBP and U.S. law enforcement access to participating countries’ criminal databases and histories of suspected gang members and criminals entering into or already in the United States. In 2018, the GCIF identified 2,195 subjects with criminal histories, among them 628 gang members not previously known to U.S. law enforcement, seeking to enter the United States or already residing in U.S. jurisdictions. Information provided by the GCIF led to the arrest of 87 individuals in the United States.
Model Precincts and Community Policing – INL funds instructors and advisors who provide oversight and training to the police in community-style policing, executive police decision making, and institutionalization of modern policing philosophies. Community policing efforts are underway in all 19 of El Salvador’s departments, with new equipment, trained personnel, and improved protocols instituted at 50 police stations across El Salvador. INL plans to expand the number of Model Police Precincts in El Salvador in the coming years. In 2018, INL began supporting the PNC’s School Resource Officer (SRO) unit, which will train 500 SROs assigned to Salvadoran schools. SROs will ensure safety of schools and help curtail the role of the military in civilian policing by enabling reassignment of military officers currently guarding schools.
Place-based Strategy (PBS) for Violence Prevention – The PBS, through INL and USAID collaboration, identifies key high-crime locations and people at risk for criminal involvement to strategically implement a balanced and integrated set of public health and law enforcement interventions. PBS activities align with Plan Seguro locations. INL launched PBS sites in Ciudad Delgado, Zacatecoluca, and Lourdes-Colon, and will deepen engagement with police, schools, and civic organizations inside the 13 Plan Seguro sectors within these three municipalities.
Prison Reform – INL aims to strengthen corrections management systems to process individuals efficiently, securely, and humanely, and to support prisoner rehabilitation. INL arranged intelligence training for Salvadoran officials in Colorado, promoting coordination between prison intelligence units and the PNC. INL training is helping El Salvador classify its inmate population, and facility renovations are providing more secure cell blocks for inmates classified as high risk. Two grants to civil society support reintegration of inmates into society with the goals of preventing recidivism and addressing overcrowding in prisons. One grant expedites parole processing at several overcrowded prisons, while the second identifies inmates with histories of good behavior, provides rehabilitative and vocational training, and helps place them with private-sector employers.
Vetted Units – Vetted units of Salvadoran police and prosecutors, supported by U.S. law enforcement mentors from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)/Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), build Salvadoran capacity to pursue complex investigations with a U.S. nexus. The FBI Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) unit is the lynchpin of bilateral and international law enforcement cooperation in attacking transnational criminal activities of criminal gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18.
Anti-Extortion Units – INL established a Business Crimes Task Force (BCTF) and a Transit Crimes Task Force (TCTF) to address widespread extortion of individual citizens and small-business owners, often cited by Salvadorans as their primary security concern and a major driver of migration. The San Salvador BCTF successfully dismantled four extortion networks organized by the transnational MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, achieving a 96 percent conviction rate. In 2016, these units contributed to Operation Jaque, El Salvador’s first effort to dismantle MS-13 financial structures, and the Attorney General’s office expanded the BCTF concept to 19 smaller “anti-extortion units” located in each of El Salvador’s 19 departments, with efforts coordinated by a National Anti-Extortion Coordinator. In 2018, El Salvador’s Organized Crime Court convicted 61 members of MS-13 arrested in Operation Jaque. In 2017 and 2018, the increasingly coordinated network of task forces operating in El Salvador carried out additional MS-13 financial takedowns and contributed to Operations Regional Shield I-III, in which authorities coordinated to dismantle MS-13 cells across the Northern Triangle and United States, resulting in the arrest of over 1,800 gang members in El Salvador alone.
Anti-Corruption – INL works with the Attorney General to strengthen the corruption crimes unit to investigate cases involving corrupt public officials with training from the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT), including support for financial investigations and the management of seized assets. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also supports a broad capacity-building program to strengthen anti-corruption measures in the Ministry of Justice and Security, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Supreme Court of Justice. INL works with the Embassy of Canada to train security personnel in VIP protection for prosecutors and judges who face risk of retaliation.
Youth Gang Prevention Programs – The Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T) program and the Police Athletic League (PAL) program mitigate the influence of gangs and improve police-community collaboration. G.R.E.A.T programming enables police officers to teach youth life skills and provide them with skills to resist the pressure to join gangs. PAL, implemented with the help of local NGOs in El Salvador, operates using a similar principle: by organizing police-led after school programs and sporting events in high-crime neighborhoods, PALs keep youth off the streets and in a secure environment in which police are presented as role models and trustworthy figures. In 2018, the PAL program went nationwide, now serving 19,495 at-risk youth across all 19 police delegations in El Salvador.