Salvador cops learn U.S. ways
BY GLENN GARVIN
MEJICANOS, El Salvador -- Even in one of the most violent countries
of the world,
this scruffy working-class suburb of the capital was something special, a place so
utterly lawless that street gangs cordoned off entire neighborhoods and charged
people to go in and out.
That makes the statistics all the more startling: Murder, down
Carjackings, down 42 percent. Robbery, down 22 percent.
``This was one of the most dangerous places in El Salvador,''
said officer William
Romeo Portillo as his patrol car rolled along the no-longer-so-mean streets. ``Now
we have one of the lowest crime rates in the whole country.''
The reason, very literally, is Portillo and a few dozen other
cops, the advance
guard of a U.S.-funded experiment that may change the face of law enforcement
in crime-ridden Central America. In a radical break with tradition, the police here
left their stations to walk beats and patrol the streets.
In a region where all the police forces evolved from the army
and still maintain a
barracks mentality, sending officers out to work the streets was a change so
profound that Salvadoran authorities acknowledge they tried it only out of
``We had no tradition of community patrolling here,'' said Francisco
Galindo, the minister of public security. ``The police were sitting in their stations,
receiving complaints. Maybe you had one guy patrolling around, but he never
talked to anyone.''
HUNDREDS IN TRAINING
But the results of the experiment in Mejicanos and a follow-up
program in three
neighboring cities have been so spectacular that Salvadoran authorities are now
training hundreds more officers in community police work and plan to implement it
all over the country.
They are urging their neighbors to give it a try, too.
The end of the civil wars that wracked this region during the
1980s left hundreds of
thousands of trained combatants out of work, and many of them have turned to
crime. Crime rates have skyrocketed throughout Central America, and police
forces in other countries, working from the same military model as the one in El
Salvador, have been equally ineffectual.
``I think the success of this program could serve other countries
very well,'' said
police Subcommander Hugo Ramirez, who oversaw the first six months of
community patrolling in Mejicanos. ``I know Nicaragua and Guatemala very well,
and I think the experience we've had here could be very good for them.''
Salvadoran officials admit they would never have tried community
policing if they
hadn't been desperate. After a 13-year civil war ended in 1992, the country was
not only awash in weapons and unemployed men who knew how to use them, but
the police were spectacularly inept.
OLD FORCE ABOLISHED
The peace treaty that ended the war also abolished the old police
forces -- widely
believed to have been linked to right-wing death squads -- and called for a new
In the rush to get cops onto the street, the government did little
training. More than 300 cops were fired for misbehavior last year, and another
2,600 suspended. Hundreds of police cars rest in junkyards, wrecked by officers
who barely know how to drive.
The U.S. Justice Department, which helped the Salvadorans set
up the new force,
had been pushing the country for years to try community patrols. But little was
done until Louis Cobarruviaz, the former police chief of San Jose, Calif., arrived to
head a Justice Department office known as the International Criminal Investigative
Training Assistance Program (ICITAP).
Not only did Cobarruviaz arrive just about the time El Salvador's
peaked, but his experience in San Jose -- where crime fell 46 percent during his
tenure -- impressed the rank-and-file police who would have to carry out the
community policing plan.
``Most of the people who work for ICITAP are from the FBI,'' said
the police subcommander who now overseas Mejicanos. ``They know more about
investigations. But Cobarruviaz is a guy with street experience, and that made a
Backed with $2.5 million in U.S. funding, Cobarruviaz preached
message here that he did when he took over the San Jose police: ``You've got to
attack crime at the front end. That doesn't mean detective work; it means patrols.
That's what we're doing here, too. These patrols are preventive in nature. Very few
people will kill someone in the presence of a cop.''
But even when the Salvadoran police accepted his philosophy, Cobarruviaz
discovered, they still needed training in even the most basic skills -- for instance,
interviewing a witness.
``In America, we learn these things by experience,'' Cobarruviaz
said. ``Here, they
haven't had any experience.''
But they picked it up fast. Put onto the streets of Mejicanos
first in patrol cars,
later on bicycles and foot, the cops quickly learned that getting to know the
community paid big dividends.
``The people in the neighborhood have a pretty good idea of their
Ramirez said. ``They know who's stealing, who's selling drugs, who's beating his
wife. We are taking advantage of that.''
Using a questionnaire approved by the Salvadoran Supreme Court,
created their first rudimentary intelligence data bank, questioning suspicious
characters and noting nicknames, tattoos and other identifying characteristics,
then transferring the information to a donated computer. It paid off almost
immediately: A kidnapping ring was busted and a quadruple murder solved
through use of the information.
If the patrols have a downside, it's that unsupervised cops can
more easily rough
up suspects if they're inclined to. Some people say that's exactly what has
``If you weren't here, they'd be beating the hell out of us for
sure,'' a young man
named Raul whispered to a reporter as cops questioned a group of suspected
crack dealers on a recent patrol in Mejicanos. ``They just know better than to do
it in front of a journalist.''
But a group of residents watching as police checked the IDs said
the patrols have
reclaimed their neighborhood.
``The sales of drugs were practically everywhere here before the
patrolling,'' said Jose Rey, a 36-year-old shoemaker. ``You couldn't go a store or
anyplace around where they weren't selling crack. . . . I think there are lot of
abuses of authority, that's true, but they can't just stop policing the neighborhood
because of that.''