El Salvador - Intelligence and Security Agencies
El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. The National Civilian Police (PNC), overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and the Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the PNC. In 2016 then president Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties, a presidential order in place since 1996. Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.
Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.
In the early post-colonial period, the primary function of police forces was to enforce, at the behest of local authorities of towns and communities, an 1825 law on vagrancy in order to ensure an adequate supply of labor for the large landowners. New regulations issued in 1855 established a state-subsidized regional "rural police" force, whose roving inspectors were to patrol the highways and countryside and to penalize offenders for minor offenses by fining or jailing them.
Salvadoran police structures, including the National Police (Policia Nacional—PN), which was founded in 1867, developed in the later part of the nineteenth century for the purpose of as- suming most of the internal security functions that the urban-based militia or army had been performing. In 1883 San Salvador set up a permanent professional police corps of 100 men and 18 officers and administrators. As a result of the liberal government's measures to deprive the Indian population of their land, expanded police forces were needed to deal with the growing Indian unrest. An 1888 legislative decree authorized the formation of a rural mounted police corps for the prosperous coffee- growing areas of western El Sal- vador, principally the departments of Ahuachapan, Sonsonate, and Santa Ana.
A national urban police system developed concurrently with the rural National Guard (Guardia Nacional—GN). By the end of 1906, the full-time police forces of the other major cities were linked administratively to the San Salvador police. President Manuel Araujo established the basis of a professional law enforcement sys- tem in 1912 when he appointed a Spanish army captain as com- mander of all the permanent civil police organizations. The captain formed a national police corps of 1,200 officers and men and developed a training program.
The evolution of the rural police system culminated in 1912 when two Spanish officers formed a Salvadoran version of the Spanish Civil Guard called the GN. Placed under the operational control of the Ministry of Government and Development, the guard's black-helmeted troops were organized specifically to defend coffee and fruit plantations from thousands of peasants evicted from what had been communal properties. Although the main duty of the GN was to control the rural population, it also enforced petty agrarian provisions and kept records on personnel employed by plantations.
Thus, many GN units—like their army counterparts—acted as private armies for the large landowners. The Treasury Police (Policia de Hacienda—PH), formed in 1926, functioned mainly as a frontier guard and customs force. Its initial mission was primarily to prevent campesinos from producing chicha, the local version of corn liquor.
In January 1932, a month after taking power, Martinez ordered his security forces to use indiscriminate violence to suppress a rural revolt in western El Salvador organized by the newly established Communist Party of El Salvador (Partido Comunista de El Salvador—PCES). The GN and Civic Guard (Guardia Civica), a newly created civilian militia, thereupon massacred, by most historical accounts, approximately 30,000 peasants, trade unionists, and opposition members in la matanza and captured and executed the communist leader, Agustm Farabundo Marti. The Martinez regime refined a system of stricter control of the rural population by developing the rural security forces, including the Civic Guard, with units in each of more than 2,000 local communities. After the rebellion, Civic Guard units functioned as a private militia for wealthy families and military commanders.
The regime based its new security measures largely on existing legislation and the Agrarian Code, which it revised in 1941 in order to set down guidelines for law enforcement and the regimentation of rural life. The basic organization of the security system as es- tablished by Martinez operated with little modification until the 1980s. The Revolution of 1948, however, reversed the subordination of the army to the security services and disbanded the Civic Guard. The three police forces thereafter assumed primary responsibility for internal security. In the early 1960s, some Salvadoran officers of an extreme rightist orientation formed paramilitary organizations to assist the army and GN in fighting subversion with unconventional and illegal methods.
The GN's Colonel Jose Alberto "Chele" Medrano helped found the Nationalist Democratic Organization (Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista—Orden). By the mid-1960s, Orden was a well-established, nationwide network of peasant informants and paramilitary forces, with a unit in most villages. Local army commanders supervised these units in coordination with GN commanders. Recruits came primarily from the army reserve system, and the GN provided most of their training. Orden units performed regular patrolling duties in their local areas, served as an informant network, and attempted to inculcate an anticommunist doctrine among the rural population. With the support of President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez, its "supreme chief," and Medrano, its "executive director," the organization expanded its role in the late 1960s to include involvement in civic action and development projects. Because of the influence of some of the more zealous GN intelligence officers, however, Orden deteriorated into an undisciplined and even ruthless militia of between 50,000 and 100,000 members.
After Medrano's removal from power in 1970, Orden's status was reduced from offi- cial to semiofficial by removing it from direct presidential control. By the early 1970s, an extensive paramilitary organization utiliz- ing the structure and personnel of Orden supplemented the traditional security system. Although the reformist coalition that seized power in October 1979 issued decrees to outiaw and disband Orden that November, the organization apparendy was abolished in name only. In 1976 a new civil defense law had established a system to assist in national emergencies and to counter attempts at rural insurgency.
The membership of the new civil defense units that were finally organized in 1981 reportedly tended to overlap with that of Orden. The main purpose of the new civil defense units was to serve as local self-defense militia and to repel guerrilla attacks on villages. By the late 1980s, the Salvadoran Army claimed to have organized 21,000 civil defense troops in 319 communities, with another 10,000 troops in training. Despite being lightly armed and poorly trained, the civil defense troops were an important supplement to the thinly stretched army.
El Salvador's internal security forces, called the public security forces, consisted of the GN, with 4,200 members; the PN, with 6,000 members; and the PH, with about 2,400 members. These services were supported by the territorial Civil Defense (Defensa Civil—DC), with about 24,000 members. Although controlled by the minister of defense and public security, even in peacetime, and engaged in the counterinsurgency effort, the public security forces had primarily a police role. By mid- 1988 the police forces had improved markedly in professionalism and performance, but they still lacked sufficient training and resources to deter or respond effectively to terrorist attacks. The PN was responsible for urban security, the GN for rural security, and the PH—including customs and immigration personnel—for the prevention of smuggling, for border control, and for the enforcement of laws relating to alcohol production and as- sociated tax matters.
The GN was organized into fourteen companies, one for each of the fourteen departments. A tactical struc- ture of five commands or battalions could replace the regular or- ganization in an emergency. The PN was divided into the Line Police (Policia de Lmea), which functioned as an urban police force; the Traffic Police (Policia de Transito), which handled traffic in urban areas; the Highway Patrol (Policia de Caminos); the Department of Investigations (Departamento de Investigaciones), or plain- clothes detective force; and the Night Watchmen and Bank Guards Corps (Cuerpo de Vigilantes Nocturnos y Bancarios).
Until the early 1980s, the security forces were among the most notorious violators of human rights in El Salvador. The PH, with an extensive network of rural informants, evolved into the most select and brutal of the three security forces during its first fifty years. Police and army units were involved in a number of bloody incidents when they attempted to break up large demonstrations. After taking office as president in 1984, however, Duarte, in an effort to tighten discipline and centralize control over the traditionally semiautonomous security forces, created the new position of vice minister of defense and public security and named Colonel Lopez Nuila to fill it. Lopez Nuila thereupon reorganized all police forces and private guard organizations as he sought to clarify the ambiguous, overlapping responsibilities of the PN, PH, and GN.
The reorganization gave the PN sole responsibility for urban law and order and restricted the GN's authority to rural areas. In addition, Lopez Nuila merged the Customs Police (Policia de Aduana) with the PH, thus removing the latter from nationwide law-andorder duties and restricting it to handling border duties and supervising the defense of state property and customs. Lopez Nuila also replaced the controversial PH director general, Carranza, with an ally, Colonel Rinaldo Golcher. Golcher placed all other paramilitary organizations—from the guard forces that defended electric companies and banks to the private guards that were hired by indi- viduals or private firms—under the control and licensing of the PH. Lopez Nuila also made an effort to purge the security ser- vices of disreputable personnel. He announced in December 1986 that 1,806 members of the public security forces had been dismissed between June 1985 and May 1986.
In November 1986, Duarte inaugurated a program under which the three security services would receive training. As a result, mandatory human rights instruction became part of police recruit training and officers' classes in the late 1980s. The security forces instituted a separate intensive human rights training program for all police. By early 1988, virtually all members of the PN had received the course, and the GN was in the process of receiving it.
The Police Subdirectorate of Operational Areas included the Police Reaction Group (GRP) and the El Salvador Reaction Specialized Forces. The GRP was disbanded in February 2018 following the disappearance of female GRP member Carla Ayala after a GRP party in 2017. GRP officer Juan Josue Castillo Arevalo was accused of killing Ayala. Castillo Arevalo remained at large, and his former supervisor, Julio Cesar Flores Castro, was charged with breach of duty in June 2018 for failing to arrest Castillo Arevalo. On September 10, Flores Castro was acquitted of that charge and released from custody, based in part on his pending promotion in the PNC. The Attorney General’s Office continued prosecution of 14 other defendants, including 12 police officers and two civilians.
There were reports alleging that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. Law enforcement agencies had not released data on disappearances since 2017, citing a discrepancy between data collected by the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office. On July 17, the attorney general launched a specialized unit to track disappearance complaints, and the Attorney General’s Office and the PNC created a joint working group to focus on disappearance cases and to ensure data consistency regarding such cases.
In July 2019 La Prensa Grafica newspaper reported it had received reports of 259 disappeared persons, of whom 173 were later found living, 11 were found dead, and 72 cases remained under investigation.
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