Under Secretary of State Maria Otero in El Salvador | Photo: Ambar Espinoza
The United States has long ties with El Salvador. In the 1980s civil war, the U.S. backed the government of El Salvador despite it’s serious human rights abuses. Now there is a new partnership between the U.S. and this country wracked by poverty and gang violence. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Society, Democracy and Human Rights Maria Otero visited El Salvador recently while our reporter, Ambar Espinoza, was in the country on assignment for Round Earth. Espinoza sent us this report about a new U.S. role in El Salvador, a country that used to make headline news in the U.S. and is now almost forgotten. Here’s Ambar Espinoza:
Otero visited a police precinct where a U.S.-funded pilot program has reportedly succeeded in reducing the homicide rate in the town of Lourdes Colon by 40 percent. Lourdes Colon is a community that has been highly affected by gang-related crime and violence.
Otero said the United States is assisting the police force in Lourdes to gather information using simple technology, such as extracting information from the cell phone chips of gang members in order to gather intelligence. The program offers police with equipment and training for investigations, prevention and community policing.
In 2009, Lourdes Colon had 319 homicides; in 2010, 285 homicides; in 2011, 184 homicides. “Overall, the decrease they have seen is a decrease that appears to be real,” said Otero. “This is important because it is a model that is not just going to…find anyone with a tattoo and put them behind bars. It is really an effort to understand how you gather intelligence, it is an effort to understand how it is that gang members are linking to others to extort, to carry out different crimes, to even kill each other.”
Otero said security in El Salvador affects security in the United States. “Part of the issue of security, not just around the United States but around the world, is one that is a very important piece for our own overall security, our national security,” she said. “Generally, I think being able to make sure that countries are secure and are stable and are safe ensures that their citizens can stay in the country. It ensures that they can also develop economically and even become an important source of economic interaction with the United States.”
The program also integrates a youth mentorship program between the police and a local school where elementary and middle school students learn strategies for how to stay in school and on track for college, prevent getting involved in gangs and maintain a healthy relationship with their parents.
“It [the work] is involving the community in a very real sense to make sure that they are active in this work,” said the under secretary. “It’s putting cameras in different places. It’s giving radios to policemen. It’s creating a 9-1-1 that allows them to deal with issues that even extend beyond gangs, like domestic violence…”
This model pilot program will be replicated in the country’s second largest city west of San Salvador in Santa Ana, another city highly affected by gang-related crime and violence.
Round Earth reported about gangs from Nicaragua. Here’s that report.