El Salvador

The Gradual Emergence of Second Generation Security Sector Reform in El Salvador

Originally published



First generation security sector reform (SSR) was implemented in El Salvador following the end of the civil war. Despite institutional reforms, Salvadoran SSR remains unfinished.

Today, 12 years after the deployment of the new civilian police force, El Salvador is plagued by crime and violence. New strategies are necessary to increase the effectiveness of the security and justice sector to control crime and address insecurity, a primary objective of SSR. This paper argues that renewed SSR should address violence and crime through local initiatives that can then inform the national debate and policy-making process. In that perspective, it looks at two initiatives that were put in place in recent years to address crime and violence in El Salvador: the US Central America Regional Security Initiative and the gang truce. These efforts point to the need to rethink how security is delivered and how the state can tackle crime and violence. Most importantly, the case of El Salvador demonstrates that non-state criminal actors who play an important role in the control of communities cannot be left out of the picture when it comes to violence control and SSR.

As such, donors and policy makers must rethink how to deal with those armed actors and adopt more flexible, less state-centric strategies that are more likely to bear results.


This paper is the product of a multi-year CSG research project, titled Exploring the transition from first to second generation SSR in conflict-affected societies. Led by CSG Executive Director Mark Sedra, the project assesses and evaluates the impact of orthodox security sector reform (SSR) programming in conflict-affected countries. Employing a common methodology, the project features original research on four case study countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste.

The case study countries chosen each feature two broad characteristics: they are recovering from conflict and making transitions from war to peace; and they are mature cases of SSR, in that they have been subjected to at least ten years of externally supported SSR programming of some form. It is also important to note that geographical diversity played an important role in case study selection, with four distinct regions represented— Balkans, Central America, West Africa, and Asia-Pacific.

The SSR model as it is applied in war-to-peace transitions and broader state building projects is in the midst of a period of change. Over a decade of case study analysis, particularly in conflict-affected environments, has shown that the SSR model, as outlined in formative documents like the OECD DAC Handbook on Security System Reform, has had a meager record of achievement. A survey of key SSR implementation cases demonstrates a distinct conceptual-contextual gap. The principal tenets and features of the SSR model, like its holistic character, focus on governance, and human security orientation are rarely translated into practice in conflict-affected SSR settings. It can be argued that the SSR model in its fundamental form has never actually been applied as designed in conflict affected environments, prompting many scholars and practitioners to explore new approaches seen as more viable in difficult implementation settings. This thinking is often loosely grouped under the heading of second generation SSR, involving a move to a new, more contextually attuned reform approach. This second generation SSR discourse is still nascent and ill-defined but rapidly taking form and gaining momentum.

The dominant objective that has united the still disparate second generation SSR thinking is the imperative of narrowing the conceptual-contextual gap. This discourse has already spawned some ad hoc programmatic initiatives in conflict-affected settings, often revolving around notions of empowering non-state security and justice providers as a means to build more sustainable and locally legitimate reform outcomes, or employing interim stabilization measures to help shape conditions for more conventional SSR interventions. In spite of the SSR model’s mixed record, SSR stakeholders and observers are not calling for its jettisoning, but rather a refashioning of the model’s core methods and good practices to make it more applicable in conflict-affected environments.

This project seeks to contribute to the gradual shift or transition in SSR policy and practice, through comparative analysis of four prominent conflict-affected SSR cases. By investigating the impact of conventional SSR and tracking entry-points for alternative approaches, the project aims to generate innovative, evidence-based insights and practical recommendations to improve SSR policy and programming in conflict-affected contexts.

Importantly, the project will provide a detailed evidence base on how SSR has been applied to transform the security and justice architectures of states making war-to-peace transitions. The project will ascertain what works and does not work in the application of the orthodox SSR model, and by extension if and how a second-generation SSR approach could deliver better results in conflict-affected environments.
As already mentioned, alternative or second-generation SSR initiatives are already emerging organically in many reform contexts, thus part of the purpose of the project will be to identify these instances and investigate whether they can inform changes to the wider SSR model. On a broader level the project seeks to advance constructive dialogue on the future of the SSR model, which has come under increasing scrutiny and pressure among policy-makers, practitioners and analysts in donor and recipient states alike due to its mixed record of achievement in conflict-affected environments.

The project seeks to answer the following main research questions for each case:

  1. To what extent and how have SSR efforts followed the orthodox SSR model as described in the OECD-DAC Handbook on SSR? In assessing SSR efforts in each case study country, how have orthodox SSR approaches succeeded and failed and why?

  2. What alternative approaches or entry-points for security and justice development programs are available? Are they used, and if so, how? If not, why?

The project has produced two reports per case study country—eight in total—one for each of the aforementioned research questions. The final report of the project—the ninth in the series—will synthesize the results of the case study research, drawing conclusions about the efficacy of orthodox SSR approaches and the potential for second generation SSR ideas.