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El Salvador’s New Push to Reduce Extortion

In the first days of his last year as president, El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes was forced to make some changes in the country’s security cabinet. Following a ruling by the Supreme Court declaring the former security and justice minister’s term unconstitutional, Funes selected Ricardo Perdomo as the new security and justice minister.

Perdomo, a civilian who was the former director of the State Intelligence Agency, is a politically-savvy and experienced professional with a lot of political experience. In his first week, Perdomo fired the director of the penitentiary system, and the vice minister of security resigned precipitously.

It’s unclear what Perdomo’s tenure will represent for El Salvador’s unprecedented gang truce, which has helped reduce homicide rates significantly but left extortion rates barely altered. What is clear is that the discourse, at least, seems more coherent now that the security cabinet is led by Perdomo.

In the mix of resignations, police commissioner reassignments, new appointments and a waning presidency, Funes seems to be making a last effort to tackle the country’s insecurity. On June 6, Funes and Perdomo announced the creation of a new anti-extortion unit. The specialized unit will be comprised of 500 police officers and 500 military personnel and will be specially trained and equipped to reduce extortions.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The general population’s main criticism toward the gang truce is that extortion remains prevalent in some areas of the country. In its most recent annual survey assessing the Funes presidency, the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Publica (University Institute of Public Opinion—IUDOP) found that 40.7 percent of the population believes crime is the country’s main challenge. Furthermore, 8 percent believe El Salvador’s main challenge is violence and 4.6 percent believe it’s maras. As for the rest of the respondents, 33 percent consider the economy and unemployment to be the main challenge, whereas only 9.8 percent think poverty is El Salvador’s main problem.

Additionally, 23 percent of El Salvador’s population says they have been victims of extortion or renta—while 28 percent of respondents said they have been victims of theft with a firearm According to the IUDOP survey, 73 percent of victims of extortion consider themselves lower-middle and upper-middle class; 24 percent are working class, 17 percent are poor, and 18 percent are rural.

The statistics clearly illustrate how the crime of extortion is cutting across social and economic strata, as well as geography. The benefits of tackling it go beyond the obvious reduction in victimization rates but will also help increase investor confidence and the overall investment and business climate in El Salvador.

For now, one of the most important obstacles the new anti-extortion unit and the police will face is convincing victims to cooperate. One of the country’s main newspapers, La Prensa Grafica, reported that 62 percent of victims of crime don’t report it to the authorities. It is also unclear how long it will take for the unit to start operating to deliver results and to bring back a long-awaited sense of security to citizens and small business owners.

Surely many will question why Funes waited so long to create the anti-extortion unit—or perhaps the announcement will go unnoticed in an already heated and disputed pre-electoral environment. What remains true is that citizen security policies demand less partisanship, can no longer be defined by ideology and must be measureable and flexible to adapt to a changing national and regional context.

*Julio Rank Wright is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily lives in Washington DC.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: El Salvador, extortion, Mauricio Funes, Ricardo Perdomo

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