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El Salvador Table of Contents

El Salvador

Mission and Organization


Member of National Guard
Courtesy Donald C. Keffer

In 1988, El Salvador's internal security forces, called the public security forces, consisted of the GN, with 4,200 members; the PN, with 6,000 members; and the PH, with about 2,400 members. These services were supported by the territorial Civil Defense (Defensa Civil--DC), with about 24,000 members. Although controlled by the minister of defense and public security, even in peacetime, and engaged in the counterinsurgency effort, the public security forces had primarily a police role. By mid-1988 the police forces had improved markedly in professionalism and performance, but they still lacked sufficient training and resources to deter or respond effectively to terrorist attacks.

The PN was responsible for urban security, the GN for rural security, and the PH--including customs and immigration personnel--for the prevention of smuggling, for border control, and for the enforcement of laws relating to alcohol production and associated tax matters. The GN was organized into fourteen companies, one for each of the fourteen departments. A tactical structure of five commands or battalions could replace the regular organization in an emergency. The PN was divided into the Line Police (Policia de Linea), which functioned as an urban police force; the Traffic Police (Policia de Transito), which handled traffic in urban areas; the Highway Patrol (Policia de Caminos); the Department of Investigations (Departamento de Investigaciones), or plainclothes detective force; and the Night Watchmen and Bank Guards Corps (Cuerpo de Vigilantes Nocturnos y Bancarios).

Until the early 1980s, the security forces were among the most notorious violators of human rights in El Salvador. The PH, with an extensive network of rural informants, evolved into the most select and brutal of the three security forces during its first fifty years. Police and army units were involved in a number of bloody incidents when they attempted to break up large demonstrations (see The Reformist Coup of 1979 , ch. 1).

After taking office as president in 1984, however, Duarte, in an effort to tighten discipline and centralize control over the traditionally semiautonomous security forces, created the new position of vice minister of defense and public security and named Colonel Lopez Nuila to fill it. Lopez Nuila thereupon reorganized all police forces and private guard organizations as he sought to clarify the ambiguous, overlapping responsibilities of the PN, PH, and GN. The reorganization gave the PN sole responsibility for urban law and order and restricted the GN's authority to rural areas. In addition, Lopez Nuila merged the Customs Police (Policia de Aduana) with the PH, thus removing the latter from nationwide law-and-order duties and restricting it to handling border duties and supervising the defense of state property and customs. Lopez Nuila also replaced the controversial PH director general, Carranza, with an ally, Colonel Rinaldo Golcher. Golcher placed all other paramilitary organizations-- from the guard forces that defended electric companies and banks to the private guards that were hired by individuals or private firms--under the control and licensing of the PH. Lopez Nuila also made an effort to purge the security services of disreputable personnel. He announced in December 1986 that 1,806 members of the public security forces had been dismissed between June 1985 and May 1986.

In November 1986, Duarte inaugurated a program under which the three security services would receive training. As a result, mandatory human rights instruction became part of police recruit training and officers' classes in the late 1980s. The security forces instituted a separate intensive human rights training program for all police. By early 1988, virtually all members of the PN had received the course, and the GN was in the process of receiving it.

Data as of November 1988

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El Salvador Table of Contents