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El Salvador: Crime situation and state protection efforts to combat criminality, including witness protection and international crime-fighting collaboration (2004-March 2005)

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 13 April 2005
Citation / Document Symbol SLV43483.E
Reference 7
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, El Salvador: Crime situation and state protection efforts to combat criminality, including witness protection and international crime-fighting collaboration (2004-March 2005), 13 April 2005, SLV43483.E, available at: [accessed 15 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Various sources of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 have highlighted that crime, especially violent crime such as homicide-fuelled mainly by youth gangs commonly referred to as maras-continued to be a serious concern for authorities (EIU Riskwire 18 Mar. 2005; Freedom House 15 Sept. 2004; JIR June 2004; CAR 29 Oct. 2004). Statistics provided by the National Civilian Police (Policia Nacional Civil, PNC) show that between 2,700 (SSV 14 Feb. 2005) and 2,790 (El Diario de Hoy 3 Feb. 2005a) homicides were reported in 2004, which was reportedly an increase of 27 per cent in comparison to 2003 figures (VOTB 26 Jan. 2005). High levels of violent crime continued in 2005 with between 285 (Radio Nederland 9 Feb. 2005; EFE 14 Feb. 2005) and 295 (Christian Science Monitor 1 Mar. 2005) homicides recorded by the police in January.

Other crimes such as armed robbery, carjacking, and kidnapping also occur regularly (EIU Riskwire 18 Mar. 2005; US 17 Mar. 2005; Canada 1 Dec. 2004); however, the number of kidnappings has reportedly been declining since 2001 (US 17 Mar. 2005; SSV June 2004). In particular, the total number of reported kidnappings dropped from 114 in 2001 to 8 in 2003 (ibid.), and from January to November 2004 there were 7 reported kidnappings (US 17 Mar. 2005).

According to Deputy Minister of Citizen Security, Rodrigo Avila, about 70 per cent of violent crimes occurred in 25 per cent of the nation's territory, particularly within the departments of Santa Ana, Sonsonate, La Libertad, San Salvador, and La Paz (El Diario de Hoy 3 Feb. 2005a). In addition, police statistics provided by the San Salvador-based newspaper La Prensa Grafica noted that 63 per cent of homicides recorded in 2004 were concentrated in 20 of the county's 262 municipalities (n.d.). Nevertheless, sources also mentioned that roughly 50 per cent of the country's total population resides in these 20 municipalities (VOTB 26 Jan. 2005; La Prensa Grafica n.d.).

A number of news sources reported that between 33 (CNS 19 Jan. 2005) and 60 (CAR 29 Oct. 2004) per cent of the homicides reported in 2004 were linked to Mara activities. According to Director of the PNC, Ricardo Meneses, the majority of those killed have been "delinquents; the citizenry has been the least affected" (CAR 25 Feb. 2005). Moreover, Meneses mentioned that gang leaders were killing "their own members to assert authority, prevent desertion, and generate fear" (ibid.).

The PNC have estimated that between 10,200 (CAR 29 Oct. 2004) and 10,500 (JIR June 2004) gang members are involved in various maras in El Salvador. According to Jane's Intelligence Review,

[t]he strongest gang within the country is MS [Mara Salvatrucha], followed by M18 and then two local gangs, the Mao Mao and the Machine (Maquina). The territory of the different gangs is clearly marked and violation by another gang results in swift retribution (June 2004).

State protection efforts

To combat youth gang violence, the government launched the Super Firm Hand (Super Mano Dura) plan in August 2004 (CAR 25 Feb. 2005; CNS 19 Jan. 2005), an anti-mara initiative that, among other things, increased powers for police and army personnel to "arrest and detain suspected gang members," boosted the number of public security agents "in the 15 worst affected areas," and introduced "'most wanted' leaflets" for sought-after criminals (EIU Riskwire 18 Mar. 2005). Please consult SLV43019.E of 30 September 2004 for more information about the Super Firm Hand plan.

In September 2004, to complement the Super Firm Hand initiative, the government announced that it would introduce a new crime rehabilitation program called Friendly Hand (Mano Amiga) (CAR 29 Oct. 2004; CNS 19 Jan. 2005). The Friendly Hand plan, as described by the Central America Report, is intended to rehabilitate and reintegrate former youth gang offenders into society through a combination of strategies, including farm programs, "sports promotion, work programs in jails, tattoo removal, drug clinics, erasing graffiti and the implementation of a national prevention plan" (29 Oct. 2004). Information on the progress of the Friendly Hand plan could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

In January 2005, despite ongoing criminal violence, President Saca announced that the Super Firm Hand plan was making progress, noting that since August 2004, some 4,000 gang members had been arrested (CAR 25 Feb. 2005). A public opinion poll conducted and published by CID-Gallup in February 2005 also reported that the president's work in combating crime proved very popular among respondents (LARR Feb. 2005; see also EIU Riskwire 18 Mar. 2005).

However, according to PNC spokesperson Violeta Polanco, the police have experienced difficulties in charging suspected criminal gang members (Christian Science Monitor 1 Mar. 2005). For example, Polanco noted that of the 4,000 gang suspects arrested since September 2004, "less than 40 have been prosecuted" (ibid.).

Various sources have reported that firearm accessibility was a key factor in fuelling much of the ongoing criminal violence (SSV 14 Feb. 2005; CAR 25 Feb. 2005). In 2004, government statistics reported that 74 per cent of the homicides committed were the result of firearms (ibid.; SSV 14 Feb. 2005). Moreover, sources reported that civilians own an estimated 450,000 (ibid.) to 500,000 (CAR 25 Feb. 2005) firearms in El Salvador. In February 2005, in an attempt to control the widespread use of firearms, the government proposed modifications to the Law of Firearms, Ammunition and Explosives (Ley de Armas, Municiones y Explosivos) (SSV 14 Feb. 2005; CAR 25 Feb. 2005). Key amendments would include changes to the Penal Code that would allow for a five-year prison sentence for anyone "carrying a firearm in a public space or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and for providing firearms to minors or the disabled" (ibid.). Information on the progress of these proposed amendments could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Also in February 2005, President Saca announced an anti-crime initiative that would allow for better coordination between the investigators from the attorney general's office (fiscalia) and uniformed police officers (EFE 14 Feb. 2005; El Diario de Hoy 3 Feb. 2005b), witness protection, and focused searches for most-wanted (mas buscados) criminals (ibid.).

Witness protection

The need for an effective witness protection program was highlighted in January 2005 when the Director of the PNC, Ricardo Meneses, stated that a lack of resources prevented the police from offering complete protection to witnesses in a formal program (FBIS 31 Jan. 2005). Country Reports 2004 also mentioned that the lack of adequate police protection for witnesses hindered efforts to "identify, arrest, and prosecute criminals" (28 Feb. 2005, Sec 1e). According to information provided to La Prensa Grafica, 27 witnesses were killed in 2004, "many shortly before they were due to provide testimony" (FBIS 24 Mar. 2005).

At the beginning of March 2005, El Diario de Hoy reported that the government was planning to establish a Witness Protection Directorate within the Ministry of the Interior (FBIS 5 Mar. 2005). In order to obtain the funds necessary to establish the directorate, deputy Interior Minister, Silvia Aguilar, was reportedly preparing a new law that would provide funding for a new witness protection program using funds confiscated from criminal gangs (FBIS 24 Mar. 2005). Further information on the progress of this law or whether a formal witness protection program was introduced could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

International collaboration

Other efforts to combat maras include collaboration with authorities in the United States and Central American countries (AP 13 Oct. 2004; ibid. 23 Feb. 2005; EFE 14 Feb. 2005; Christian Science Monitor 1 Mar. 2005). In October 2004, police authorities in El Salvador and California reportedly began exchanging information on youth gang members in order to better combat gang activities in both countries (AP 13 Oct. 2004). PNC Director Meneses stated that his intelligence officers had been instructed to share their database containing information on 10,500 gang members, "including many who have been deported from the United States," with US police officers (ibid.). In return, US police officials would provide PNC officers with information they needed to fight gangs in El Salvador (ibid.). Moreover, the Associated Press (AP) reported that "the FBI, California police and Central American authorities" would "open a liaison office in San Salvador to coordinate anti-gang efforts and share information" (23 Feb. 2005; see also Christian Science Monitor 1 Mar. 2005).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Associated Press (AP). 23 February 2005. Traci Carl. "U.S., Central America Unite Against Gangs." (Anchorage Daily News) [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]
_____. 13 October 2004. Ben Fox. "El Salvador Enlists U.S. to Fight Gangs." (Philly Burbs) [Accessed 4 Apr. 2005]

Canada. 1 December 2004. Foreign Affairs Canada. "Travel Report: El Salvador." [Accessed

Central America Report (CAR). 25 February 2005. "El Salvador: Murder Rate Prompts Legal Reforms." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2005]
_____. 29 October 2004. "El Salvador: 'Friendly Hand', 'Hard Hand'." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2005]

Christian Science Monitor [Boston]. 1 March 2005. Danna Harman. "For Salvadoran Gangs, Jail is a Revolving Door." [Accessed 8 Apr. 2005]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. 28 February 2005. "El Salvador." United States Department of State. Washington, DC. [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

Cox News Service (CNS) [Atlanta]. 19 January 2005. Teresa Borden. "El Salvador Racked by Gangs." (Knowgangs Website) [Accessed 6 Apr. 2005]

El Diario de Hoy [San Salvador]. 3 February 2005a. Wifredo Salamanca. "Preparan Plan para Dismunir los Asesinatos." [Accessed 31 Mar. 2005]
_____. 3 February 2005b. Alexandra Bonilla and Antonio Soriano. "Saca Defiende Reformas a la Ley de Armas." [Accessed 31 Mar. 2005]

Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Riskwire. 18 March 2005. "El Salvador Risk: Security Risk." (Dialog)

EFE News Service [Madrid]. 14 February 2005. "U.S. Top Cops Going to El Salvador to See Fight Against Gangs." (Dialog)

Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). 24 March 2005. "Highlights: Central America Crime and Narcotics Press 23 Mar 2005." (WNC)
_____. 5 March 2005. "Highlights: Central America Crime and Narcotics Press 4 Mar 2005." (WNC)
_____. 31 January 2005. "Highlights: Central America Crime and Narcotics Press 31 Jan 2005." (WNC)

Freedom House. 15 September 2004. Freedom in the World 2004. "El Salvador." [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

Jane's Intelligence Review (JIR) [Surrey]. June 2004. "Criminal 'Mara' Gangs Pose Threat to Central America."

Latin America Regional Reports (LARR) [London]. February 2005. Caribbean & Central America Report. "Saca Flying High."

La Prensa Grafica [San Salvador]. n.d. Ernesto Mejia, Amilcar Mejia and Fatima Miranda. "Lanzaran Plan para Capturar Homicidas." [Accessed 21 Mar. 2005]

Radio Nederland. 9 February 2005. Neri Mabel Reyes. "Criminalidad en El Salvador." [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

Sociedad Sin Violencia (SSV) [San Salvador]. 14 February 2005. "Sin Armas en los Espacios Publicos." [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

___. June 2004. Prevencion y Control del Crimen y la Violencia en El Salvador: Lineamientos Estrategicos. [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

United States (US). 17 March 2005. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular Information Sheet: El Salvador." [Accessed 31 Mar. 2005]

Voices On the Border (VOTB) [Washington, DC]. 26 January 2005. Geoff Herzog. Update on El Salvador. "Arena's 'Mano Dura' a Failure After One Year." [Accessed 18 Mar. 2005]

Additional Sources Consulted

Internet: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2005, World News Connection.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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