Michael Busch

A team representing the private consulting firm of Rudolph Giuliani will arrive in El Salvador this coming weekend to advise local leaders on combating a recent explosion in violent crime. Early last month, El Salvador’s Council on Citizen Security announced that it had secured Giuliani’s services as part of a larger effort to address the country’s worsening security situation. Giuliani was originally scheduled to meet with community leaders, small businesses, and other private sector interests during his visit, and was expected to preach the virtues of enacting a zero tolerance approach to fighting crime. 

Late last week, though, Giuliani’s firm confirmed that Giuliani himself would not be traveling to El Salvador this month. Instead, John Huvane, the chief executive of the security services arm of Giuliani’s outfit, announced that he would be leading a team of researchers down to Central America to collect data and conduct a preliminary analysis of the situation. According to Huvane, Giuliani would travel to El Salvador himself sometime in March of this year.       

The visit by Giuliani's team comes at a particularly troubled moment in El Salvador. Since early last year, when a truce between the country’s most fearsome organized criminal gangs fell apart, the official murder rate has jumped an alarming 56 percent from 2013 levels. What’s more, many observers fear that while the truce may have brought some measure of peace to El Salvador, it allowed the gangs to tighten their already firm grip over the country’s political economy. Despite confusion about what to do in the face of mounting security concerns, however, hiring Giuliani to suggest reforms is clearly not the answer.

Giuliani’s involvement in El Salvador’s problems will likely make a bad situation worse. Not only does he bring with him a questionable record on crime control, but his heavy-handed approach to law enforcement has already been demonstrated a failure in the tiny Central American country. 

The former mayor is widely credited with transforming New York City from the “crime capital of the world” into a paragon of law and order despite evidence to the contrary. Under Giuliani, the police implemented “broken windows,” a theory of security emphasizing crack-downs on petty crime as the surest road to safer communities. Crime rates did drop during Giuliani’s tenure, though many analysts dispute the claim that zero-tolerance policies had much to do with it. On the contrary, critics of broken windows contend that its policies disproportionately target poor and minority populations, exacerbate inequality, and benefit a minority of private interests.     

Since leaving public office shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Giuliani has used the national tragedy and a tough-on-crime reputation to reinvent himself as an international security expert.  In 2002, he formed Giuliani Partners, a transnational consulting firm “dedicated to helping leaders solve critical strategic issues,” which has since spawned numerous subsidiaries, spinoffs, and no shortage of controversy. Giuliani has traded effectively on his leadership experience, advising foreign governments and private industry on best practices to keep their interests safe. Business has been good. In just over a decade of existence, the firm has grossed over $100 million.  

Latin America is familiar territory for Giuliani. In 2003, he travelled to Mexico City to present government and business leaders with a 146-point plan for crime reduction. If the proposal yielded positive results, they are hard to find. While police targeted street vendors and other people who might be “bearers of social disorder,” crime actually increased in Mexico City in the years following Giuliani’s visit. The city may not have been made safer because of his recommendations, but Giuliani walked away $4 million richer. Still, this uninspiring record in the region has not discouraged other Latin American countries from soliciting Giuliani’s help. 

The former mayor was also recently hired by the government of Guatemala to help get that country's crime problem under control. On a recent visit, Giuliani was unequivocal in is prescriptions. “When you have a tremendous amount of crime in your society,” he told an audience convened by the Guatemalan Development Foundation, “you are not going to solve it with schools, libraries, nice neighborhoods and sports teams. You have to emphasize law enforcement. As soon you get the crime down, the next thing you do is build up the social programs. That’s when you create more jobs, better neighborhoods, better schools.”

Giuliani’s ham-fisted approach to security is not without precedent in El Salvador. For much of the last decade, government response to the gangs took shape in highly militarized policies designed to crush the maras with blunt force and mass arrests. The so-called super mano dura approach did not meet with much success. Instead, the country has suffered increasing rates of murder and violent crime, and seen its prisons become dangerously overcrowded. The gang truce may have offered a brief respite from the state’s need to deploy overwhelming force, but in the wake of its failure El Salvador may be on the verge of returning to these heavy-handed tactics.  

Beyond contributing to a more violent society, and their inability to stop the mounting power of organized crime, previous iterations of zero tolerance in El Salvador have done nothing to help the country’s struggling economy. El Salvador, home to one of the highest rates of inequality in the world, has witnessed stagnant economic growth since the turn of the twenty-first century. The legacies of civil war, foreign intervention, rapid liberalization and high levels of violence have each contributed to El Salvador’s economic malaise. But while it’s not clear what, if anything, can be done to jumpstart development, there is no evidence to support the theory that ramping up coercive security measures will have a positive impact on the country’s fiscal or monetary health.

To be sure, the country’s business elites believe they stand to benefit from Giuliani’s prescriptions. The sort of practices encouraged by Guiliani’s brand of security provision fit nicely with neoliberal orthodoxy that demands government exclusion from free market activity at same time that it expects the state to keep markets protected from undesirable actors, whoever they may be. No wonder, then, that Latin America’s private interests have been eager to have Giuliani come to town and call for zero tolerance policies. And if the price is right, apparently, he is more than happy to oblige. 

It isn't yet known how much Giuliani will be paid for the work he and his team will conduct in El Salvador. Whatever the fees, that money could surely be spent more productively. Indeed, investment in those public goods pooh-poohed by Giuliani in Guatemala—schools, libraries, urban renewal projects and extracurricular activities for youth—is precisely what’s most needed in El Salvador. While socioeconomic development is not a silver bullet for lowering crime, it offers a much stronger base for ensuring long-term social security than increased militarization of the police. Unfortunately, it is highly doubtful that Giuliani or El Salvador’s business elites will see it this way.

Meanwhile, the country will continue to struggle. Economic forecasts are bleak. Women and children are under siege. The gangs hold sway throughout much of the country, and the government, despite its radical roots, is weak and compromised by conservative elites. Yet if the right road ahead for the country remains uncertain, one thing is abundantly clear. The last thing El Salvador needs right now is Rudy Giuliani.  

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.