El Salvador remains a major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States from source countries in South America. The United States government estimates that approximately 90 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States in the first half of 2015 first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor. Traffickers in El Salvador use “go-fast” boats and commercial vessels to smuggle illegal drugs along the country’s coastline and to provide fuel to drug-laden vessels en route to northern destinations. The Pan-American Highway is the primary land route, with drug traffickers using buses and tractor-trailers to smuggle shipments.
In September 2014, the government launched a Security Council comprised of government officials and religious, business, and civil society leaders to develop an action plan for reducing crime and violence in El Salvador. In January 2015, with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the European Union, the Council provided the government with a security plan, the Plan El Salvador Seguro (Plan Seguro), organized along five main themes: violence prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation and reinsertion of criminals into society, attention to and protection of victims, and strengthening of government institutions. Plan Seguro is a geographically-oriented, place-based approach to coordinate multiple lines of action aimed at reducing insecurity, including factors such as drug consumption and trafficking.
The United States assists El Salvador’s efforts through initiatives including the U.S.-El Salvador Partnership for Growth and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Despite this commitment to shared counternarcotics objectives, Salvadoran law enforcement agencies lack sufficient personnel, training, and equipment to effectively manage the country’s borders and interdict drug shipments, and there continues to be a lack of accurate information on the severity of drug trafficking and use within El Salvador.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
The Anti-Narcotics Division (DAN) of the National Civilian Police (PNC) is the primary agency responsible for combating drug-related crimes throughout El Salvador. The vetted counternarcotics unit Grupo Especial Anti Narcoticos (GEAN) within the DAN is responsible for conducting sensitive counternarcotics investigations. By 2015, the GEAN had transitioned from a non-vetted unit to a fully-vetted unit comprised of 23 Salvadoran officers. The DAN and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have worked together to incorporate experienced drug crime investigators into the GEAN, increasing the unit’s effectiveness and enabling it to develop investigations that target larger criminal organizations.
The Government of El Salvador made advances in reforming its correctional institutions in 2015. The Central National Prison Directorate (DGCP) made efforts to reduce its overcrowding problem in prisons and pre-trial detention cells (“bartolinas”), which were operating at 307 percent of their designed capacity at the end of 2015. The DGCP reported that nearly 43 percent of incarcerated inmates were involved with or affiliated with gangs.
The DGCP has established policies to reduce the flow of illegal contraband currently entering the prisons and is addressing a variety of incarceration issues that allow criminal organizations to control their operations from within the prisons. For example, the DGCP currently utilizes the 27 U.S.-funded hardened prison cells with cell phone blocking capabilities in the Zacatecaluca prison, limiting the level of control that criminal leaders exercise over their organizations.
The United States has collaborated with El Salvador since 2010 to establish and maintain a National Electronic Monitoring Center, which began operations in June 2012. The center enables Salvadoran law enforcement authorities with judicial warrants to intercept electronic communications to support investigations of drug trafficking organizations.
El Salvador is party to the Central American Convention for the Prevention of Money Laundering Related to Drug-Trafficking and Similar Crimes, the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, the Inter-American Convention on Extradition, and the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.
El Salvador signed an agreement with the United States in 2000 to permit access and the use of facilities at the international airport of El Salvador in Comalapa to conduct aerial counternarcotic activities. The agreement was renewed for an additional five-year term in August 2014.
A Joint Interagency Task Force “Grupo Conjunto Cuscatlán” (GCC) composed of PNC, customs and port authorities, and military was established in 2012 to combat transnational organized crime. In 2015, an embedded advisor was added to the Task Force to improve integration. While GCC has shown promise, the unit lacks a government decree assigning specific responsibilities for the administration of, fiscal appropriation to, provision of intelligence to, and maintenance of the unit. The Government of El Salvador needs to enact such a decree in order to maintain GCCs potential as a viable counternarcotic force.
2. Supply Reduction
During 2015, Salvadoran authorities seized 2,401 kilograms (kg) of cocaine; 2.5 kg of heroin; 927 kg of marijuana; 2.5 kg of methamphetamine; bulk currency valued at approximately $723,000; and arrested 289 suspected drug traffickers. Authorities also seized approximately $1.3 million in assets related to illicit activities, including drug trafficking.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
Drug abuse among Salvadorans is a growing concern, particularly among youth. The government has not kept reliable statistics for illegal consumption since 2012. The PNC has been successfully implementing the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program in public schools throughout model police precinct (MPP) locations. In 2015, the United States trained and certified 47 additional Salvadoran PNC officers as full-time GREAT instructors. Since its inception, this El Salvador-based training program certified over 865 regional officers and has trained more than 150,000 at-risk youth in Central America. In addition to the GREAT program, the PNC has deployed the Police Athletic league in some MPP projects benefitting over 3,000 at-risk youth. In 2015, the United States-PNC partnership under MPP continues to serve approximately three million Salvadorans for citizen security and prevention.
The United States supported the Salvadoran Government in the implementation of the Place Based Strategy (PBS) for violence prevention, which supports the municipalities identified by the Government in Plan Seguro. As part of the sustained support to the MPPs, 947 PNC officers were trained and equipped in 2015 to implement best practices in effective crime prevention, community policing, intelligence, and citizen contact.
In 2015, the United States helped strengthen the effectiveness of criminal justice procedures and practices by training 446 justice sector personnel; providing technical assistance to increase coordination between justice sector agents and institutions; training on the Code of Criminal Procedures; improving criminal investigations using scientific evidence; and building the capacity of the police and prosecutor’s offices.
With U.S. support, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission provides technical assistance to the government’s drug treatment and prevention systems, including training for service professionals and support to treatment facilities.
As a matter of policy, the Government of El Salvador does not encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in laundering the proceeds of the sale of illicit drugs. However, corruption within the Salvadoran political system remains a serious problem. The United States continues to utilize U.S.-trained Colombian polygraphists via the trilateral International Cooperation Division (ICD) to assist the Government of El Salvador with anti-corruption efforts. Colombian polygraphists completed 120 exams in 2015 including personnel in PNC investigative units, DAN, GCC, Office of the Attorney General, and the new Transit Crimes Task Force Unit.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The United States supports citizen security, law enforcement, and rule-of-law programs in El Salvador, mainly through CARSI. These programs aim to expand Salvadoran capabilities to interdict, investigate, and prosecute illegal drug trafficking and other transnational crimes, implement prevention programs, and strengthen El Salvador’s justice sector. Through CARSI, the United States trains and equips the PNC to perform anti-gang law enforcement. The United States also supports community policing in El Salvador with equipment, vehicles, training, communications, and social and economic programs. The United States provided Salvadoran law enforcement the ability to use eTrace (an Internet-based tracking system) to trace firearms used in criminal activity, identify firearms traffickers, and further support violent firearm crime investigations and prosecutions.
The Government of El Salvador is a committed partner with the United States to combat organized criminal organizations and strengthen institutional capabilities to investigate narcotics-related cases.
In 2015, U.S. assistance focused on enhancing the operational capacity of Salvadoran law enforcement agencies to interdict drug shipments and combat money laundering, and public corruption. U.S. assistance promoted transparency, efficiency, and institutional respect for human and civil rights within law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The United States supported efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations, particularly the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the 18th Street Gangs, while developing and implementing integrated initiatives to disrupt criminal activity, including drug trafficking. U.S. assistance included specialized training for 320 Central American officers in intelligence-led policing, as well as basic and advanced community policing. The GCC utilizes four boats donated by the United States, and the United States will continue to assist the Government of El Salvador to interdict illicit traffic utilizing maritime surface assets. The United States continues to help expand the PNC/DAN canine units by training dogs and their handlers and purchasing dogs via the ICD agreement to expand canine unit capabilities and strengthen border and port security.
In November 2013, the Legislative Assembly approved an asset forfeiture law. The United States continues to coordinate with El Salvador to implement the law through training for judges, prosecutors, PNC, and the asset forfeiture program’s governing organization (CONAB).
El Salvador strengthened its capacity to combat illegal drug trafficking in 2015. The PNC’s wiretapping unit is functional and showing positive results. El Salvador faces formidable challenges, and must take steps to promote sustainable and effective law enforcement institutions. Successful implementation of Plan Seguro should improve the security situation in El Salvador.
The successes of 2015 can be sustained if the Government of El Salvador demonstrates increased leadership in crime prevention, security, and rule of law. Future steps should include providing additional manpower, resources, and equipment to the PNC, as well as ensuring adequate pay as a key element to minimizing the risk of corruption. Security and justice sector officials must be held accountable for their performance and hiring and promotion must be based on merit. El Salvador’s correctional institutions require significant management reforms to expand their capacity. Aggressive oversight is necessary to manage prison security, in order to ensure that criminal organizations are not run from within the country’s prisons. Efforts must also be made to improve interdiction operations, especially land interdiction of drugs, cash, and other contraband such as firearms, ammunition, explosives, and munitions transported via the Pan-American Highway.
The Government of El Salvador understands that enhancing citizen security is essential for promoting the country’s economic growth, and the recently approved Plan Seguro demonstrates such an understanding.