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El Salvador gets 'tough' amid worsening crime

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However, the “more forceful” security strategies that have begun to emerge from Funes’ new militarized security cabinet sound less like innovations than a return to the failed policies of the past. Since the end of the civil war, each successive government has moved to take a tougher stance on crime by trying to roll back the protection of suspects’ civil rights. The three presidencies that preceded Funes each worked for reforms to give the police and legal system greater powers, “arguing that the laws as they stood benefited criminals more than society,” as IPS details.

In 2003, the Francisco Flores government rolled out the Plan Mano Dura (the Iron Fist Plan), a hardline security strategy that allowed suspected gang members to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of their appearance (not difficult, given the popularity of tattoos to pledge allegiance). Over the next four years the number of gang members locked up doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.

The overcrowded jails provided a fertile ground for converting young people into hardened criminals, and being thrown together allowed the gangs to organize and regroup. It also galvanized the development of sophisticated extortion networks. Critics say the policy failed, and homicide rates have doubled since it was instituted.

Funes himself had initially moved away from these hardline measures, favoring more holistic, community-based anti-gang policies. But the statements of Munguia, his new security minister, sound worryingly familiar.

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