Protect and Serve? The Status of Police Reform in Central America


Protect and ServeDuring the opening session of the first Meeting of Public Security Ministers of the Americas, held in October 2008, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, emphatically claimed that “security-related issues have become one of the principal threats to stability, the strengthening of democracy, and the development potential of our region.” Insulza’s statement highlighted the fundamental role that citizen security plays in the consolidation of Latin America’s democracies. One of the most basic obligations of any democratic state is to guarantee the security of its population and preserve public order within a framework of respect for due process and universally recognized human rights. The lack of citizen security affects quality of life, opportunities for development, and rights as diverse as the right to freedom from harm and the right to property. If people feel incapable of fully exercising their rights and freedoms, and if they doubt the ability or willingness of law enforcement institutions to guarantee their protection, then states run the risk of losing the legitimacy and popular support essential for democratic governance.

In the modern state, the police are the main institution responsible for law enforcement, and they are often the population’s first point of contact with the state. As such, they constitute a central element of democratic societies. In Central America, the first efforts to create modern, apolitical, and democratic police forces emerged after the brutal civil wars that claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people in the region. In that era, military forces or death squads linked to the military tortured and executed thousands of civilians. Police units participated directly in the conflicts through political espionage, illegal detentions, forced disappearances, torture, and participation in those death squads. Because of this troubled history, the peace processes in Guatemala and El Salvador, the democratization process in Honduras, and the political transformation in Nicaragua gave priority to police reform as an essential condition for the construction of a firm and lasting peace. The central objectives of these reforms were the separation of police and military forces, the establishment of civilian control over security forces, the demilitarization of internal security, and the creation of responsible, apolitical, and effective police forces that respect human rights. Given the paramilitary origins of many of the former security forces and their role as a tool for societal control, the democratization processes required a profound reengineering of the security forces and not just the adoption of a list of piecemeal reforms.

By the end of the 1990s the region had achieved important advances in police reform, although with some disparities between countries. The police and military forces had been separated. Guatemala and El Salvador had established new police forces, and Honduras and Nicaragua had restructured theirs. The new forces had better leadership, better oversight mechanisms and vetting procedures, improved investigative capacity, internal and external control systems, and better-organized patrol functions. New police doctrines were announced and steps were taken to bring the police closer to the community. Civil society actors, for their part, began to participate in monitoring police activities. On the whole, these reforms raised citizens’ expectations of a police service that would provide basic security without prejudice or preference.

These initial advances did not come easily, and there have been many obstacles and setbacks. Much of Central America is engaged in a fragile and uneven transition toward democracy. The majority of police forces still do not have solid command and control structures or completely functional systems of internal control. Investigative units are weak and plagued by poor leadership, corruption, and politicization. Revelations of human rights violations, corruption, and, in some cases, infiltration by powerful criminal networks have damaged the image of the police. At the same time, insufficient attention has been given to preventive and community-oriented policing models.

While the reforms were underway, the region was hit by a wave of postconflict violence. In recent years the area of Central America known as the “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has experienced increases in homicides and other crimes, making it one of the most violent subregions in Latin America and the world. Factors contributing to rising crime rates include the high levels of poverty and exclusion, the lack of opportunities for youth,
the disintegration of family units compounded by growing gang activity, and easy access to small arms. Equally important are the fragility of state institutions and the lack of cooperation between them, a situationexacerbated by the growing influence of organized crime and drug trafficking.

Unfortunately, the surge in crime and violence occurred just as the international community was reducing its attention to police reform in Central America. International partners played an important role in providing political, financial, and technical assistance to the police reform processes, and despite problems of prioritization and coordination, their support and political pressure were crucial to the gains that were made. During the 2000s, however, several factors led to a reduction in international involvement. The support that has continued tends to focus more on combating drugs and terrorism than on the structural reforms necessary for the consolidation of police forces.

The worrisome situation of insecurity and the state responses to it have resulted in clear setbacks in some areas where advances had been achieved, threatening the still fragile police institutions. The increase in criminality has strengthened support for repressive responses, especially greater involvement of the national militaries in public security tasks. The citizenry, worn down by daily crime and violence and understandably afraid, has demanded stronger action by their governments. In some cases governments have siezed on this discontent to promote more rigid policies that threaten to roll back advances in civil and human rights and the professionalization of the police, leading to an increasing tolerance of police abuse. The absence of security has also pushed citizens to seek other options, from hiring private security companies to acquiring weapons and even taking justice into their own hands.

The roots of the widespread violence are largely structural, and addressing them will require profound and comprehensive political solutions. Police reform is central to this effort. A democratic state that respects civil and human rights must have a civilian police force committed to the prevention and investigation of crimes, to respect for human rights and due process, and to strong community relations. The police reform processes in the region have been slow and difficult. However, the consolidation of Central American democracies into modern states that guarantee respect for human rights cannot be achieved without strengthening and professionalizing their police forces. This in turn depends on critical structural and institutional elements—good leadership and training, effective internal and external control mechanisms, and a functioning system of command and control. Success will be impossible without long-term vision and strong political will on the part of the region’s governments.

For more than two decades, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has worked on issues related to human rights and citizen security. Because the Central American peace processes included the formation of modern and professional police forces as a key element, WOLA closely monitored the first police reform efforts as well as U.S. and international police assistance, writing numerous reports on the subject.3 Over the years, WOLA has partnered with various Central American civil society organizations working on citizen security and institutional reform of the police. WOLA has also participated actively in police reform processes in Haiti and Mexico and has continued working closely with many organizations involved in the issue at the regional level.

The new forms of violence affecting most of Central America today pose a serious challenge to governance and the rule of law. An effective response requires a new focus that, among other things, gives priority to a genuine effort to strengthen and professionalize police institutions. Toward that end, WOLA has recently revamped its police reform program. As a first step, WOLA commissioned the present study to highlight the overarching need to redirect national and international efforts toward the professionalization and strengthening of the Central American police forces. The definition of clear policies for the consolidation of modern, efficient, and rights- respecting public security forces must be a central element of democratic consolidation and extension of the rule of law in the region.

This report paints a portrait of the police in Central America today. It draws on interviews conducted by in-country experts with government officials, current and former police, representatives of international aid agencies, and civil society leaders in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Beginning with the reforms that emerged from the peace and political transition processes in the region, the report analyzes the current state of police reform processes, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, with a lesser focus on Nicaragua.4 Each section examines a key aspect of the creation of professional police forces, including (a) police recruitment, selection, and training, (b) police leadership, (c) internal controls and disciplinary mechanisms, (d) external controls, (e) criminal investigation, and (f) community policing. Clearly, these are not the only areas of concern; important issues that remain outside the scope of this report include, among others, the organization of police forces, the deployment of preventive police, and the development of command and control structures. Each thematic section evaluates the advances, setbacks, and failures in individual countries with respect to the issue in question. Overall, the report highlights the challenges that these countries must meet as they seek to build modern and democratic police forces and provide for the security of their citizens. It concludes with recommendations for actions by the countries of the region and for the role that the international community can and should play to support these efforts.