The government's attitude and actions towards political opposition parties and criminality, especially criminal youth gangs and their members, since the election of President Antonio Saca (March-September 2004) [SLV43019.E]

Political situation

Sources reported that Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA) garnered 57.7 per cent of the total votes cast in a victory over the opposition National Liberation Front Farabundo Marti (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, FMLN) party in presidential elections held on 21 March 2004 (Latinamerica Press 7 Apr. 2004; CAR 26 Mar. 2004). Although the election was reportedly characterized as a "no-holds barred campaign" against Schafik Handel, the FMLN presidential candidate and ex-guerrilla leader (ibid.), electoral observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) stated that they were pleased with the electoral process, noting an absence of anticipated political violence (American Regional Reports 23 Mar. 2004). Subsequently, Handel complained that scare tactics were used to urge voters into voting for ARENA (ibid.; ibid. 22 June 2004) and then boycotted the 1 June official inauguration of president-elect Saca (Reuters News 2 June 2004; CAR 26 Mar. 2004) by holding protests in a number of municipalities, including a large gathering in San Salvador (Weekly News Update on the Americas 6 June 2004). At the San Salvador meeting, echoing Handel's speech that demanded the government terminate initiatives such as privatization and the ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), members of a group called the Popular Resistance Movement added that the current government policy would lead to a "social war" (ibid.).

However, within days of taking office, President Saca met with representatives of the opposition and stated that he wanted "to establish a permanent multiparty commission to discuss social, political and economic issues of national importance" (Latin American Regional Reports 22 June 2004; see also Miami Herald 2 June 2004). In response, FMLN leader Handel reportedly stated that "his party was interested in preparing the ground[work] for 'democratic governability'" (ibid.) and further requested OAS presence at the proposed commission's meeting to oversee its usefulness (Latin American Regional Reports 22 June 2004). The Research Directorate could find no further information about the treatment of opposition parties by the Saca administration.

Crime situation

With respect to crime, especially criminal youth gangs and their members, President Saca has stated that he would take a different approach to addressing this issue than his predecessor, President Flores (CAR 9 July 2004; ACAN-EFE 31 Aug. 2004; Latin American Weekly Report 7 Sept. 2004). Under the Flores administration, the introduction of the June 2003 Firm Hand Plan (Plan Mano Dura) tasked the police with dismantling youth gangs by arresting as many members as possible using an anti youth gang (anti-maras) law that was later deemed unconstitutional by the county's Supreme Court of Justice (CAR 23 Apr. 2004; AI 16 June 2004). According to Amnesty International, the Anti-Maras legislation penalized "members of 'maras' or gangs simply on the basis of their appearance and social background" and allowed for minors to be tried as adults (16 June 2004). Consequently, of the 19,275 suspected gang members arrested under the Firm Hand Plan, "16,919 were acquitted or released without charge, mainly for lack of evidence or improper arrest; 964 were committed for trial; and the rest are awaiting resolution" (Latin American Weekly Report 7 Sept. 2004).

Faced with the opposition of international human rights organizations (AI 16 June 2004; CAR 9 July 2004) as to the unconstitutional nature of the youth-gang law promulgated by the Flores administration, the Saca administration initiated a multilateral public consultation process to examine options to address the "crisis of youth gangs" (ibid.; ACAN-EFE 31 Aug.2004). Attended by representatives from a number of government and non-government entities such as the police, the attorney general's office, the human rights ombudsman, the judiciary, and international organizations, the goal of the consultation was to analyze the penal code and formulate a program that would be able to address the prevention and rehabilitation of youth offenders (CAR 9 July 2004; IPS 3 Aug. 2004).

Using the consultation process as a framework, the Saca administration developed a new anti-crime plan, dubbed the Super Firm Hand (Super Mano Dura) (ACAN-EFE 31 Aug. 2004; Latin American Weekly Report 7 Sept. 2004), which contained a number of components and followed "four tracks: (1) prevention and citizen participation, (2) deterrence and prosecution of criminals, (3) rehabilitation and (4) reinsertion of gang members into society" (ibid.). Nevertheless, the Latin American Weekly Report mentioned that the plan focused mainly on the creation of "specialised units to target the gangs and other criminal activities" (7 Sept. 2004, 14). The same article noted that additional components consisted of "frequent patrolling of urban crime 'hotspots' with unmarked police vehicles (carrying uniformed personnel)" and training sessions on "proper police procedure" (Latin American Weekly Report 7 Sept. 2004).

The following media reports provide information on various anti-crime initiatives being carried out by the Saca administration:

In August 2004, El Diario de Hoy noted that over 200 new officers would be assigned to the Rural Police (Policia Rural, PR) of Sonsonate, a department which reportedly has the highest incidence of crime in the country (4 Aug. 2004). Without providing any statistical information, Deputy Security Minister Rodrigo Avila mentioned that the work undertaken by PR personnel has led to a reduction in crime in Sonsonate (El Diario de Hoy 4 Aug. 2004).

In addition, El Diario de Hoy reported that five anti-gang units were created within the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil, PNC) (19 Aug. 2004). Composed of nine experienced officers in each group, these units will examine gang activities in relation to factors such as the methods that gangs use and the districts most affected by their presence (El Diario de Hoy 19 Aug. 2004). According to Deputy Director Pedro Gonzalez, the PNC plans to establish 10 anti-gang units by the end of 2004 (ibid.).

Also in August 2004, in conjunction with the official inauguration of Super Firm Hand, a joint police/army operation was launched to combat youth gangs in areas most affected by crime (ACAN-EFE 31 Aug. 2004; Washington Post 17 Sept. 2004). News sources reported that President Saca ordered about 1,000 soldiers from the army to assist PNC officers in the apprehension of gang leaders (ACAN-EFE 31 Aug. 2004; Washington Post 17 Sept. 2004).

While the Super Firm Hand plan is still in its early stages of implementation, President Saca stated that the anti-crime strategy was a "true success," resulting in the arrests of 779 gang members and a 40 per cent reduction in the national crime rate (Latin American Weekly Report 21 Sept. 2004, 10). However, the Latin American Weekly Report countered the President's optimistic forecast by stating that this initial success depended on whether captured gang members would be convicted or released (ibid.). In addition, strict police enforcement against gang members has reportedly exacerbated issues such as overcrowded jails and violent prison riots (Washington Post 17 Sept. 2004; BBC 19 Aug. 2004). For example, in August 2004, a fight between gang members and other convicts resulted in the deaths of 31 detainees at La Esperanza prison, an 800-person facility that is reportedly packed with more than 3,000 inmates (ibid.).

Alternative models for rehabilitating youth gang members have also been met with resistance by members of the police (IPS 3 Aug. 2004). According to Jose Willan Garcia, general coordinator of Movement of Youth Discoverers (MOJE), an anti-violence organization that helps gang members to give up their violent lifestyle, local police do not believe in the efforts of this organization and continue to "harass" its members (ibid.). MOJE and other anti-violence groups such as the United States-based Homies Unidos contend that the government's anti-mara strategies have reduced participation in their programs and have therefore hindered their efforts to stop gang violence (ibid.).

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.


ACAN-EFE [Panama City]. 31 August 2004. "El Salvador: President Wields 'Super Firm Hand' Against Crime." [Accessed 31 Aug. 2004]

Amnesty International (AI). 16 June 2004. ) AI Index: AMR 29/005/2004.) "El Salvador: Unconstitutional Law Should be Repealed and New Approaches to Public Security Considered." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

BBC News. 19 August 2004. "El Salvador Prison Riot Kills 31." [Accessed 28 Sept. 2004]

Central America Report (CAR) [Guatemala City]. 9 July 2004. "El Salvador: Public Forum to Discuss Anti Mara Laws." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

____. 23 April 2004. "El Salvador: Same Old Youth Gang Law." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

____. 26 March 2004. "El Salvador: Arena Wins Landslide Victory." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

El Diario de Hoy [San Salvador]. 19 August 2004. "El Salvador: Police Create Five Special Anti-Gang Units, Estimated 10,200 Gang Members in Country." [Accessed 31 Aug. 2004]

____. 4 August 2004. "Over 200 New Officers To Be Assigned to Rural Police; Possible Military Involvement." [Accessed 31 Aug. 2004]

Inter Press Service (IPS). 3 August 2004. Sarah Elizabeth Garland. "Law Brands Gang Members Irredeemable." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

Latinamerica Press [Lima]. 7 April 2004. Edgardo Ayala. Vol. 37, No. 7. "El Salvador Right Scores Landslide in Election." [Accessed 7 Apr. Sept. 2004]

Latin American Regional Reports: Caribbean and Central America [London]. 22 June 2004. "Saca Bridges Gap to Opposition."

____. 23 March 2004. "Arena Maintains Stranglehold on Power in El Salvador as Saca Crushes Handel."

Latin American Weekly Report [London]. 21 September 2004. "Saca Claims Early Success for Anticrime Drive."

____. 7 September 2004. "Saca's Anticrime Plan Bets on Specialisation."

Miami Herald. 4 June 2004. "El Salvador: New President Meets With Opposition." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

Reuters. 2 June 2004. "El Salvador: Leftists Boycott Inauguration of Salvador President." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

Washington Post. 17 September 2004. Mary Jordan. "Central America's Gang Crisis." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2004]

Weekly News Update on the Americas [New York]. 6 June 2004. Issue 749. "El Salvador: New President Protested." [Accessed 6 June 2004]

Associated documents