REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, has named a newly retired military man to head the National Civilian Police, stoking protests from opponents who say such an appointment violates the spirit of peace accords that ended the nation's civil war 20 years ago this month.
The naming of Gen. Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera, who retired from the army last week, follows a similar decision by Funes to name a former military officer as minister of justice and public security, a position that also had been held by a civilian (link in Spanish).
Funes said his new police director has the right credentials to confront a spiraling wave of violence engulfing the nation, fueled by the twin forces of drug traffickers and deeply entrenched street gangs.
"Mr. Salinas Rivera has had an outstanding role within the government's security, shown a great professionalism, and has a profound knowledge of the problems related to delinquency," Funes said.
Funes was elected president as the candidate of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political faction made up of former guerrillas.
But facing one of the highest murder rates in the world (roughly 12 per day in a nation of just 6 million people), he has been under mounting pressure from conservative business and political sectors that see the violence as an obstacle to development and international investment. For these groups, the military represents the only solution.
The National Civilian Police is a force born of U.N.-brokered peace accords and was meant as a professional, civilian-run law enforcement agency to replace military-dominated security bodies that were frequently responsible for killing and abusing citizens.
Law now requires the police director to be a civilian; Salinas Rivera retired from the army and stepped down as vice minister of defense last week to meet the requirement. But that has not satisfied opponents.
"The president's decision not only violates the republic's constitution but could also mean the militarization of public security, and something dangerous that could generate a backward step to the past," said Medardo Gonzalez, secretary-general of the FMLN (link in Spanish).
Just last week, Funes marked the 20th anniversary of the accords that ended the 12-year civil war between guerrillas and a U.S.-backed right-wing government. He used the occasion to apologize for the government's role in the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, where 936 men, women and children were slaughtered by U.S.-trained army troops -- one of the war's most egregious atrocities.
Two months ago, Funes named retired army Gen. David Munguia Payes as minister of justice and public security, a sensitive post.
Critics on the left see these appointments, along with other developments in Guatemala (where a former army general was recently elected president) and Honduras (where the army joined police in fighting violence) as a disturbing "militarization" trend in a region still consolidating democracy.
In El Salvador, officials say street gangs, including the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street, some of them descendants of gangsters deported from Los Angeles in the 1990s, are responsible for as much as 60% of homicides.
But the decision to give the military a decisive role in public security could be counterproductive. Intelligence sources told The Times that there have been reports of army involvement in the disappearance of a number of alleged gang members. In addition, the sources say, Mara Salvatrucha leaders are believed to have begun buying pistols and grenades from arms traffickers to confront the military.
-- Alex Renderos
Photo: Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes places flowers at a monument to the victims of the El Mozote massacre during a Jan. 16 ceremony in El Mozote marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the civil war. Credit: Luis Romero / Associated Press