El Salvador’s gang truce

A promising truce brokered by the Church that has reduced homicides by an average of 10 people per day should be upheld.

El Salvador's President Funes has denied any government involvement in negotiating the truce [GALLO/GETTY]

Scranton, PA – For the last several years, El Salvador has ranked among the most violent countries on the planet when measured in terms of homicides per capita. In 2011, officials recorded 4,354 murders, giving the country of over six million a murder rate of approximately 71 per 100,000, slightly above the 66 per 100,000 the UN reported for 2010.

It then looked like 2012 was going to be an even worse year, with over 800 Salvadorans murdered during the first two months of the year. If homicides were to continue at the same rate for the next 10 months, El Salvador would suffer through approximately 5,000 murders, nearly 700 more than in 2011.

However, homicides were cut by more than half from 14 to 6 per day right around the legislative and municipal elections on March 11. At the time, El Faro, an online newspaper in El Salvador, reported that Mauricio Funes’ government had negotiated a truce with the country’s two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Dieciocho (18th Street Gang).

Funes denied that report and El Faro soon began receiving threatening messages. The National Civilian Police (PNC) reported that only 241 Salvadorans were murdered throughout the month of March, a 40 per cent decrease from February.

 Church brokers El Salvador gang truce

On March 28, President Funes reiterated that he was not involved in negotiating a truce with the gangs; he claims it was an initiative of the Catholic Church. Gang leaders of the MS-13 and the Dieciocho have said that the negotiations were mediated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres, head chaplain of the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the National Civilian Politics (PNC). Former congressman Raul Mijango was also involved in the negotiations.

Colindres says that he did not negotiate on behalf of the government, but rather reaffirmed that it was a truce between the gangs mediated by the Church. Funes did admit that his government responded to the news of a truce by transferring 30 gang leaders out of maximum security prisons. He did so in order to reward their co-operation and to help convince them to order their gang members outside the prisons to stop killing each other.

No quid pro quo

However, his government did not do so as part of a quid pro quo with the MS-13 and the Dieciocho as some of his critics contend. While it’s not clear that the government orchestrated the truce, it is obvious that the government lent its support to the negotiations by transferring 30 inmates from maximum security to lesser security institutions for no good reason.

When asked about the transfer on March 16, Minister of Justice and Security David Munguia, who replaced Manuel Melgar, said that the inmates were transferred because “the prisoners’ sentences allowed for a reduction in the amount of time in maximum security; some were ailing; and jailers had gotten word of a plot for a mass escape”.

In these statements, Munguia was more throwing ideas out, rather than offering an explanation. It’s also unreasonable to believe that the government transferred prisoners from a maximum security prison to one of lesser security where inmates can receive family visits to break up a planned prison escape.

On March 26, Colindres and the papal ambassador to El Salvador, Luigi Pezzuto, said Mass to members of the MS-13 at the Ciudad Barrios prison. A spokesman for the gang said: “In the name of my entire gang, I want to ask forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change… We’re human beings who aren’t just here to do evil”.

According to former guerrilla leader and current political analyst Roberto Canas, “The good thing is a temporary reduction in killings. The bad thing is that nobody knows how long it will last.” Previous truces have not lasted very long.

On Sunday, the Archbishop of San Salvador Jose Luis Escobar praised Colindres’ efforts and asked that the people of the country take advantage of this opportunity to surpass the intolerable violence. In a recent interview with Jorge Ramos of Univision, Funes stated:

Most murders, I would say that 90 per cent or more is not about the murders of a defenceless civilian population. They are essentially the settling of scores, quarrels, summary executions, carried out by criminals of each other for control of territory and control of drug dealing. That is what has happened in recent days, there have been more killings of gang members or gang associates or employees of organised crime structures.

While probably somewhat of an exaggeration, it’s clear that the MS-13 and 18th Street Gang are responsible for a large share of the homicides and other criminal activities including robbery, extortion and rape among other offences, committed in the country.

Gang history

The MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s, primarily by the children of Salvadoran refugees who had fled civil war violence and state repression (see This is for the Mara Salvatrucha by Samuel Logan). Young Salvadorans joined the MS-13 to defend themselves against Mexican- and African American-based gangs. Other Salvadorans joined the Mara Dieciocho (18th Street Gang), a gang originally formed by Mexican immigrants.

According to a 2010 OSAC report, “the gangs roam freely, day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries. Gang members are quick to engage in violence, even when resistance is offered…”

In the mid-1990s, the US adopted a much “more aggressive approach to deportation, identifying and deporting not only undocumented and legal non-citizen convicts as they completed federal prison sentences, but also undocumented and non-citizen felons as they completed sentences in state and local prisons” (The Washington Office on Latin America 2008).

For many deportees, they returned to an unfamiliar world because they had spent nearly their entire life in the US and spoke limited Spanish. Their immediate family remained in the US and they were often shunned by their extended family in El Salvador, because they were covered in tattoos and had a criminal past.

Between 1998 and 2005, USAID figures report that approximately 200,000 convicts and illegal immigrants were deported to Central America from the US.

The massive influx of deportees was more than the government could manage. The country was just emerging from more than a decade of civil war and was unprepared to respond to the returned troubled youth with “prevention and intervention programmes for at-risk youth or incarceration and rehabilitation programmes for serious criminals” (WOLA 2008).

In the last 15 years, the MS-13 has grown both in numbers and criminal operations. It not only operates in El Salvador, but also in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States.

It’s difficult to assess with a high degree of certainty the true number of gang members in El Salvador and all of Central America. Scholars, policymakers and law enforcement officials estimate that there are anywhere from 69,000 to 200,000 gang members in Central America. The Salvadoran Interior Ministry and some academics estimate that there are approximately 15,000 gang members in El Salvador, while others place the number closer to 25,000 (OSAC 2010).

For Salvadorans, the situation brought on by gangs in El Salvador is at crisis levels. The MS-13 and other gangs are deeply involved in arms trafficking, carjacking and extortion, murder for hire, narcotics and violent street crime. According to a 2010 OSAC report, the gangs “roam freely, day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries. Gang members are quick to engage in violence, even when resistance is offered. Many gangs are now comprised of unemployed youth who do not hesitate to use deadly force when perpetrating crimes”.

An opening

Negotiating a truce between the country’s two main gangs does not solve the causes of violence, but it does provide an opening for the government and the Salvadoran people to take important steps to tackle the root causes of the country’s violence.

President Funes has said that he is going to call on all sectors of Salvadoran society to construct “a national accord that will guarantee the increasing eradication of violence and insecurity in the country”. According to Funes, such an accord will tackle “the social exclusion and the lack of employment, education, health and recreation opportunities for the youth”. However, any agreement will not include a pardon for gang members.

The US Embassy in El Salvador has remained silent on the announced truce. However, this would be an opportune moment for the US to demonstrate its support for alternative efforts to reduce violence in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. The US came under strong criticism after it dismissed Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s call for a discussion of drug decriminalisation.

Instead of announcing that it has donated 47 new pickup trucks and 365 computer workstations to the Salvadoran police force, the US should announce that it is doubling or tripling resources destined to rehabilitate former gang members. The US could also announce that it will move towards changing the immigration status of 215,000 Salvadorans living with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States to permanent residency status.

Neither of these efforts, on its own, will be a game changer. However, it will show that the US is willing to work with our hemispheric partners, outside the box if necessary, to improve their lives of the people of Latin America.

Previous gang truces in El Salvador have failed and it’s not clear that this one will last either. However it is important to remember that for each day that the truce holds, 10 more Salvadorans live to see another day. In a country with a majority Catholic population, Salvadorans might be allowed to breathe a little easier this Holy Week and it’s worth giving the truce a shot.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.