Official: El Salvador ‘not falling apart’

From the print edition

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The top adviser to President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador says his boss was sworn into office in an atmosphere of violence and economic despair – but that with three years down and two to go, El Salvador’s 6.1 million people finally have a leader who gets it.

“When we came to power, the government was practically in bankruptcy. We had enough money only for two months’ salary,” said Alexander Segovia, speaking May 18 at the Council of the Americas in Washington. “We knew we would be governing in the midst of capitalism’s deepest crisis in 80 years. We had to be realistic.”

The Oxford-trained economist said it was ironic that before the March 2009 election in which Funes – running on the leftist FMLN ticket – defeated Rodrigo Ávila of the right-wing ARENA party, his detractors repeatedly accused Funes of being a communist who would distance El Salvador from the United States.

“The opposition warned that if a leftist government came to power, we’d have absolute chaos, that capital would fly out of the country, that we’d do crazy things,” he recalled. “But we were always clear that this was going to be a safe and secure change. After three years, all these perceptions have been shown to be unfounded. We had a democratic transition, we’ve started a new era, and we’ve laid the foundations to get out of this historic quagmire. We now know the country isn’t going to fall apart.”

On the contrary, said Segovia, the Funes government inherently understands that private investment is key for generating employment and boosting El Salvador’s sluggish economy. In 2011, gross domestic product grew by only 1.5 percent, with 2 percent growth projected for this year. But that’s a whole lot better than 2009, he said, when the economy contracted by 3.1 percent.

“El Salvador had the lowest level of growth in Central America despite all the reforms,” said Segovia. “We have pretty much tried everything there is to do. We’ve opened the economy and we’ve signed free trade agreements, but we still have an economy that does not grow at the rate it needs to grow. We’re in a vicious cycle, and if we don’t get out of that cycle, any government will be very fragile. We must generate a process of high, sustainable growth. That’s going to be our primary challenge over the next 24 months.”

 The Funes government’s other big headache is violent crime. Last year, El Salvador’s homicide rate exceeded 70 per 100,000 inhabitants, or about 18 killings a day – second in the world only to neighboring Honduras. Last month, the country marked its first murder-free day since Funes was sworn into office nearly three years earlier.

The reason: In early March, El Salvador’s two most violent gangs – Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) – agreed to stop killing each other’s members. They also vowed to suspend attacks on police officers and military forces, and to no longer recruit new members at schools. 

Segovia denied media reports that the Funes government had cut a deal with the gangs, 30 of whose leaders were immediately transferred from maximum-security prisons to a common prison following the announcement of the truce.

“The government has not made any agreements and will not make any agreements with gangs,” he said. “What we have done is facilitate the dialogue that the Catholic Church is involved in, because we think this is very important. We are saving 300 lives a month, so that alone means it’s worth the effort.”

The drop in violence has also been good for business, he said.

“Our biggest obstacles to growth have been low productivity and insecurity, especially extortion. A big company can deal with crime; they can hire security firms. But small companies have a harder time. Fortunately, the scenario has changed completely. This initiative by the church began with a lot of skepticism, but it’s now an opportunity we have to take advantage of. This is something we could not have imagined only four or five months ago.”

El Salvador registered 255 murders in March, 147 in April and 76 in the first 15 days of May. That’s down 60 percent from the first months of 2012.

Great news, Segovia said, “but what happens when the gangs decide they don’t want the ceasefire anymore? We have a great opportunity we haven’t had before. The church has said there’s a social dimension underlying the violence, so let’s try to see if we can build a state policy around security and crime, which we haven’t had before. If society makes a commitment and starts to build programs to deal with youths at risk, we’ll start to have solutions.”

Even so, Segovia admitted that his government would not be able to eliminate the gangs without bringing down El Salvador’s notoriously high youth-unemployment rate.

“There are lots of doubts, of course, if this ceasefire is sustainable. But the truth is, we’re already seeing some results,” he said. “A lot of people believed you had to have an iron-fist policy, going after criminals and repressing crime. But the issue of crime and security is very complex and has a number of facets. Everyone realizes that simplistic analyses about the origin of crime are not working. We’re starting to understand the issue in all its complexity.”

 Segovia assured his audience that the Funes government wouldn’t let its guard down when it comes to organized crime and drug trafficking.

“We’ll continue to go after these groups, but what we need is a national agreement on employment, because if we have enough jobs, we’ll shut off the faucet of all the young people who get into these activities because they don’t have opportunities,” he said. “We have to show results now. We can’t wait 24 months.”

In answer to a question posed by The Tico Times, the presidential adviser disputed suggestions that El Salvador has seen a gradual militarization of its security forces.

“We don’t agree with that thesis,” he said. “The constitution is not being violated, and we don’t see this as militarization. The constitution gives an exceptional role to accompany police in security situations. We found a country in crisis when we came in. The investment we made in police was just so that they could have minimum conditions to do their work. They were without vehicles, radio and food. It was a police force completely without resources; the criminals were riding in 4x4s and policemen were on bicycles. We can’t continue that way.”

Segovia added: “People sometimes forget that before the peace accords [which ended El Salvador’s long-running civil war in 1992], police had chiefs from the military and nobody said anything back then. Now, the police forces in El Salvador are no longer infiltrated by organized crime. The military did take over for a little while in this process, but how else do you compete with organized crime? Unlike our neighboring countries, it’s very clear that our national civilian police are not infiltrated by organized crime, though our police do need to be strengthened institutionally, and that’s a challenge for the future.”