Former enemies unite in El Salvador's enthusiastic peacetime police force

CHALATENANGO, EL SALVADOR — CHALATENANGO, El Salvador -- Once he was an outlaw; now he's the law. Former guerrilla Carlos Lopez is still in the mountains, but today he heads the forces of the newly established National Civilian Police in the northern department of Chalatenango.

His right-hand man is assistant commissioner Jose Luis Tobar Prieto, former member of the National Police, a force closely allied with the Salvadoran armed forces.


"If we'd known each other during the war, we would have been shooting each other," jokes Mr. Tobar.

There is no trace of rancor between the former enemies as they discuss cattle rustling and armed robbery and the possibility of creating a mounted force to patrol the Honduran border.


"Democracy is based on respect for one another, and this is what was missing in El Salvador," says Mr. Tobar.

"We may have our differences, but each respects the other's opinion. This project unites us."

El Salvador's new police force is perhaps the most dramatic example of reconciliation since United Nations-brokered peace talks brought an end to 12 years of civil war early last year.

Twenty percent of its members are former guerrillas of the

Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN; 20 percent are from the security forces; and 60 percent are civilians.

It is a unique experiment. In no other country has a new police force been composed of former enemies.

"This is the cornerstone of the peace accords. We have to hope and pray that it is a success," says Jean-Pierre Lanier, who monitors the new police force for the U.N. observer mission, ONUSAL.

Awareness of rights


Mr. Lopez and Mr. Tobar head the first contingent of the police deployed in Chalatenango, in March of this year. Their cadets have replaced the National Police force responsible for decades of human rights violations.

Unlike their predecessors, the new recruits are now as well versed in human rights law as in the use of heavy weapons and aim to be a neutral force in a country still polarized by years of civil war.

Today, the new police chiefs find themselves guarding former enemies and arresting former friends.

On the Day of the Soldier in May, Mr. Lopez organized security for the military base in Chalatenango, in previous years a favorite target of the FMLN. Mr. Tobar often travels into former guerrilla-controlled zones to give talks on the new police force to FMLN sympathizers.

Despite the potential difficulties of running a police force made up of men and women who spent more than a decade killing one another, the commissioners say there have been no problems.

There is even mutual respect for the skills each side learned during the war. "The experience . . . by both sides complements each other," says Mr. Tobar. "They [the FMLN] have their knowledge, and we have ours."


With a starting salary of less than $150 month and long working hours, the motivation for joining the force is often idealistic.

Alfredo Mancia, a deputy inspector who was a former FMLN fighter, sees the new police playing a historic role in El Salvador's reconciliation process.

He says that this common sentiment dispelled any initial worries about working alongside former enemies and helped to unite the force.

According to the police chiefs, their main problem with cadets is that so much emphasis has been given to human rights that the new police treat criminals with too much care.

"When the new police see someone armed, they say, 'Please, can I put on the handcuffs?' and 'Please give me your gun,' " says Mr. Tobar.

The inhabitants of the town are delighted with the new force, who take people to the hospital in emergencies and greet people politely. "It's too early really to say how successful they are, but I would say they are 200 percent better than the old police," says Juan Menjivar, 22, a decorator from Chalatenango.


Mauricio Torres, from the nearby village of San Jose las Flores, says he called the old police the "insecurity police" because they were often drunk and abusive.

High morale, low pay

With high morale, dedicated troops and widespread approval, the new police ought to have a rosy future.

But the Salvadoran government has not made the police a high priority, and despite early enthusiasm, international financing has been minimal; the police are under-equipped and lack funds.

In Chalatenango, there are shortages of revolvers, radios and handcuffs. Police depend on ONUSAL for vehicles, while local peasants lend them horses.

Despite drastic reductions in the Salvadoran armed forces, only one building belonging to the military was handed over to the police. But before leaving their barracks, the now-disbanded Bracamonte Battalion gutted the building, removing panes of glass from windows, doorjambs, light bulbs, toilets and even faucets.


National Civilian Police Director Jose Maria Monterrey, businessman and personal friend of President Alfredo Cristiani, is running the force from the offices of his air-conditioning company. Files lie in boxes scattered around the floor. "We are working with the minimum," says Mr. Monterrey, who has yet to claim his salary.

The U.S. government, which provided El Salvador with $1 million per day at the height of the war, has managed to rustle up only $6 million for the new force.

But problems are serving to unite the force even more.

"We are used to being faced with the impossible," says Mr. Lopez. "We will do anything to make this work." Both he and Mr. Tobar say they will vote for the party that promotes the new police in elections to be held in March next year.