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El Salvador Table of Contents

El Salvador


Historical Background

In the early post-colonial period, the primary function of police forces was to enforce, at the behest of local authorities of towns and communities, an 1825 law on vagrancy in order to ensure an adequate supply of labor for the large landowners. New regulations issued in 1855 established a state-subsidized regional "rural police" force, whose roving inspectors were to patrol the highways and countryside and to penalize offenders for minor offenses by fining or jailing them.

Salvadoran police structures, including the National Police (Policia Nacional--PN), which was founded in 1867, developed in the later part of the nineteenth century for the purpose of assuming most of the internal security functions that the urbanbased militia or army had been performing. In 1883 San Salvador set up a permanent professional police corps of 100 men and 18 officers and administrators. As a result of the liberal government's measures to deprive the Indian population of their land, expanded police forces were needed to deal with the growing Indian unrest. An 1888 legislative decree authorized the formation of a rural mounted police corps for the prosperous coffee-growing areas of western El Salvador, principally the departments of Ahuachapan, Sonsonate, and Santa Ana.

A national urban police system developed concurrently with the rural National Guard (Guardia Nacional--GN). By the end of 1906, the full-time police forces of the other major cities were linked administratively to the San Salvador police. President Manuel Araujo established the basis of a professional law enforcement system in 1912 when he appointed a Spanish army captain as commander of all the permanent civil police organizations. The captain formed a national police corps of 1,200 officers and men and developed a training program.

The evolution of the rural police system culminated in 1912 when two Spanish officers formed a Salvadoran version of the Spanish Civil Guard called the GN. Placed under the operational control of the Ministry of Government and Development, the guard's black-helmeted troops were organized specifically to defend coffee and fruit plantations from thousands of peasants evicted from what had been communal properties. Although the main duty of the GN was to control the rural population, it also enforced petty agrarian provisions and kept records on personnel employed by plantations. Thus, many GN units--like their army counterparts--acted as private armies for the large landowners. The Treasury Police (Policia de Hacienda--PH), formed in 1926, functioned mainly as a frontier guard and customs force. Its initial mission was primarily to prevent campesinos from producing chicha, the local version of corn liquor.

In January 1932, a month after taking power, Martinez ordered his security forces to use indiscriminate violence to suppress a rural revolt in western El Salvador organized by the newly established Communist Party of El Salvador (Partido Comunista de El Salvador--PCES). The GN and Civic Guard (Guardia Civica), a newly created civilian militia, thereupon massacred, by most historical accounts, approximately 30,000 peasants, trade unionists, and opposition members in la matanza and captured and executed the communist leader, Agustin Farabundo Marti (see The Coffee Republic , ch. 1).

The Martinez regime refined a system of stricter control of the rural population by developing the rural security forces, including the Civic Guard, with units in each of more than 2,000 local communities. After the rebellion, Civic Guard units functioned as a private militia for wealthy families and military commanders. The regime based its new security measures largely on existing legislation and the Agrarian Code, which it revised in 1941 in order to set down guidelines for law enforcement and the regimentation of rural life. The basic organization of the security system as established by Martinez operated with little modification until the 1980s. The Revolution of 1948, however, reversed the subordination of the army to the security services and disbanded the Civic Guard. The three police forces thereafter assumed primary responsibility for internal security.

In the early 1960s, some Salvadoran officers of an extreme rightist orientation formed paramilitary organizations to assist the army and GN in fighting subversion with unconventional and illegal methods (see Right-Wing Extremism , this ch.). The GN's Colonel Jose Alberto "Chele" Medrano helped found the Nationalist Democratic Organization (Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista-- Orden). By the mid-1960s, Orden was a well-established, nationwide network of peasant informants and paramilitary forces, with a unit in most villages. Local army commanders supervised these units in coordination with GN commanders. Recruits came primarily from the army reserve system, and the GN provided most of their training. Orden units performed regular patrolling duties in their local areas, served as an informant network, and attempted to inculcate an anticommunist doctrine among the rural population. With the support of President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez, its "supreme chief," and Medrano, its "executive director," the organization expanded its role in the late 1960s to include involvement in civic action and development projects. Because of the influence of some of the more zealous GN intelligence officers, however, Orden deteriorated into an undisciplined and even ruthless militia of between 50,000 and 100,000 members. After Medrano's removal from power in 1970, Orden's status was reduced from official to semiofficial by removing it from direct presidential control.

By the early 1970s, an extensive paramilitary organization utilizing the structure and personnel of Orden supplemented the traditional security system. Although the reformist coalition that seized power in October 1979 issued decrees to outlaw and disband Orden that November, the organization apparently was abolished in name only. In 1976 a new civil defense law had established a system to assist in national emergencies and to counter attempts at rural insurgency. The membership of the new civil defense units that were finally organized in 1981 reportedly tended to overlap with that of Orden. The main purpose of the new civil defense units was to serve as local self-defense militia and to repel guerrilla attacks on villages. By the late 1980s, the Salvadoran Army claimed to have organized 21,000 civil defense troops in 319 communities, with another 10,000 troops in training. Despite being lightly armed and poorly trained, the civil defense troops were an important supplement to the thinly stretched army.

Data as of November 1988

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