Community Policing in El Salvador

The first week of my trip in Central America is all bid’ness; no dirty tees and sharing a dorm room with six Israeli backpackers - I'm living large at the Hilton and ironing my pants and collared shirt every evening.

As a member of the Latin American regional team for ICMA, I’m here in El Salvador to help coordinate a week-long exchange program under our USAID-funded program Municipal Partnerships for Violence Prevention in Central America (AMUPREV) aimed at violence and crime prevention. Our five-man-strong team, comprised of two Salvadoran ICMA consultants, two police officers from Santa Ana, CA, and myself, travels in a squeaky white bus to the outlying communities of Sonsonate and Nahuizalco, about an hour west of the capital San Salvador. Our mission? To train police officers and school resource officers in community-oriented police training and youth crime and drug prevention. Educational resources like these are limited in Central America. Living in the United States and being accustomed to having access to things like an online criminal justice school, it is almost overwhelming to experience what it is like in other countries.

In Sonsonate, aka Tierra de los Cocos (Land of the Coconuts), it’s amazing to hear stories from municipal police who receive no formal training and are paid a monthly salary of $250 with no life insurance. Yet they serve 12-hour shifts and confront gang members armed with aggression and guns, intricate drug webs that involve fellow police colleagues, corruption at the municipal and state levels, and a lack of ability to enforce the law not because of apathy, but because of the nonexistent training when they enter the police force. When we practiced a series of dinamicas, or exercises to role-play best practices when confronted with certain situations, we were surprised to learn that teams of two policemen share one gun. They were equally surprised that every policeman in the United States has their own weapons.

In Nahuizalco, aka Tierra de Las Mariposas (Land of the Butterflies), a smaller city that marks the beginning of La Ruta de Las Flores, the officers and school directors who oversee youth safety share stories about eight-year-olds who carry knives to school and their parents who, when confronted, say, “It’s a pencil sharpener.” A young high-schooler whom we met during our training in Nahuizalco boldly posed a challenging question: “How am I to trust the school officers when they smoke outside my class and don’t do anything all day?”

Despite the lack of training, meager salaries, and daily dangers, these municipal and school officers show integrity and hunger. They’re genuinely interested in how to help improve their communities and make streets safer and youth less exposed to gangs, violence, and drugs in schools. The two police officers from Santa Ana, CA shared best practices that could be employed in Sonsonate and Nahuizalco, taking into account cultural and legal differences.

It’s great to directly interact with the Salvadoran communities where our program is implemented and attend the training sessions that end in requests for photos and compliments of muchisimas gracias. The police officers, school directors, and student government leaders who have attended the trainings eagerly promise us that they'll implement the new practices immediately.

From my walled cube on the fifth floor of an office building in Washington, DC, it's easy to get caught up in budget management and spreadsheets without ever meeting the communities and vibrant youth who are the recipients of ICMA's international development programs. Getting out to the field reminds me of how rewarding it was to be a Peace Corps volunteer; strap on your language cap, throw yourself into an open-armed community, and smile and do your best to help patch the holes. Earn the community's trust, have open conversations, drink lots of tea, and brainstorm about how western practices can best be adapted to fit a developing, under-resourced community's needs.

My trip to El Salvador has been extremely rewarding and engaging so far. The Salvadorans I've met are eager to implement the skills taught by ICMA to improve community policing and create safer communities for youth. Even though the country is still recovering from the guerilla war, the policemen and school resource officers we are working with have already taken the lead in making schools and neighborhoods safer.

Click here to view photos from my trip to El Salvador and Guatemala!
And here to read other stories from my adventures in Central America!

Popular Posts