A second chance for President Funes in El Salvador

The government deserves credit for supporting the gang truce, but must reform its own approach to the ‘problem’.

Members of the gang Mara 18 stand in a prison in Izalco
Murder rates have fallen substantially since a truce was established between El Salvador's gangs [Reuters]

Scranton, PA –
In March 2012, Monsignor Fabio Colindres, head chaplain of the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the National Civil Police (PNC) and former congressman and guerrilla of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front Raul Mijango helped broker a truce between two notorious Salvadoran gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang. These two gangs had greatly contributed to making El Salvador one of the most violent countries on the planet with a murder rate that surpassed 70 per 100,000 in 2011. Prior to the announcement of the truce, the government said that 90 per cent of all homicides were gang-related.

Since the truce, the average number of people Salvadorans murdered each day has fallen from approximately 12 to five. In the two months preceding the truce, 821 homicides were reported throughout the country. During the month of March, when the truce was announced, 241 homicides were committed. And now in the two months since the truce, April and May, the National Civil Police reported that 328 Salvadorans were murdered.

Falling crime levels after gang truce in El Salvador

If the murder rate continues at level of the past two months, the country will end the year with a remarkable rate somewhere below 30 homicides per 100,000. Murders did not drop by 90 per cent but the decrease in murders as a result of the truce has been much greater than I anticipated. While just about everybody is happy that a reduction in gang-related murders has occurred, important questions remain as to what exactly was negotiated and how to make it last. For the truce to be long-lasting, it is not only the gangs that have to change. It is also the Salvadoran state.

As reported in April, the MS-13 and 18th Street Gang leaders agreed to stop killing civilians and fellow gang members. In return, the imprisoned gang leaders were provided with better prison conditions, including transfers and family visits. Since the initial truce, the gangs have also made commitments to refrain from recruiting minors and have designated schools as “safe zones”.

For good reason, though, Salvadorans remain suspicious of the truce. The truce was negotiated in secret by a bishop and a former FMLN congressman. For the first few weeks, Mauricio Funes and members of his administration denied any complicity in the negotiations. It was only after the truce had held for a few weeks that the government admitted to a role. It’s not entirely clear what the government “offered”, other than improved prison conditions. While that might work for those currently imprisoned, there’s a good chance that those on the outside will have less incentive to stick to the agreement made by those behind the prison walls.

‘Doubts hurt the process’

Some Salvadorans are also worried about the precedent set by the government in negotiating with murderers, extortionists, rapists and thugs. And while there is strong evidence that homicides have declined, there are disagreements about whether extortion, disappearances and kidnappings have increased over the same time period. What good is a gang truce that reduces homicides if all other types of crime increase?

It’s not only the individual gang members who need to be reformed but the manner in which the Salvadoran state and United States have approached the gang ‘problem.’

As the truce has gained more traction, the government has focused its efforts on a bringing about a national accord that will work to reverse the social exclusion and the lack of employment, education, health and recreation opportunities for the youth. Some Salvadorans are concerned, however, how such a poor society with so many already unemployed could afford to provide educational and/or employment opportunities for an estimated 11,000 gang members and their dependents. And in a country with scant resources, why should former gang members’ educational and employment needs come before those Salvadorans who never turned to a life of crime?

Raul Mijango, one of the truce’s brokers, has pleaded with his countrymen: “We have to be less pessimistic. Doubts hurt the process.”

However, another question that has not been pursued is whether the Salvadoran state can change. For the truce to succeed, it’s not only the individual gang members who need to be reformed but the manner in which the Salvadoran state and United States have approached the gang “problem”. In the 1990s, the United States adopted gang abatement strategies that emphasised mass incarceration and increased deportation.

Following the police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, thousands of young men and women who had been raised in the United States were forcibly repatriated to El Salvador, a country with which they were barely familiar. They were sent back to a government that was just emerging from a bloody civil war and which saw most, if not all of them, as criminal deportees who were a threat to society. Throughout the 1990s, the governing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party’s discourse blamed alleged gang members, including all criminal deportees, for most of society’s ills.

However, it wasn’t until the ARENA party’s adoption of a Mano Dura approach to crime in the first few years of the 21st century that the violence escalated to epidemic proportions. In 2003, President Francisco Flores Perez pushed for Plan Mano Dura. As Sonja Wolf has written, “the measure entailed not only area sweeps and joint police-military patrols, but was also accompanied by a temporary anti-gang law that permitted the arrest of suspected gang members on the basis of their physical appearance alone”. The government attempted to scale back many of the postwar human rights reforms because they believed that they had facilitated the growth of these criminal groups.

Mano Dura to ‘Plan B’

After using the Plan Mano Dura to win the 2004 presidential election, President Antonio Elias Saca doubled-down on the strong fist approach to gangs with his own Plan Super Mano Dura. As a result, tens of thousands of Salvadoran youths were rounded up and incarcerated on charges ranging from murder (which was obviously understandable) to illicit association (broadly defined) and tattoos.

“It does not appear that the Funes administration has used the truce to restart its basic approach to poor and marginalised youth.

The hard line approach to gangs and gang-age men helped push the country’s homicide rate to among the highest in the world. The country’s homicide rate increased from 36 per 100,000 in 2002, the year before Plan Mano Dura went into effect, to more than 70 per 100,000 in 2009, the year in which Mauricio Funes assumed the presidency. Mano Dura had not only failed but it made things much worse.

Initially, the Funes administration rightfully pursued a more comprehensive anti-gang strategy that relied on “social prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation, victim support and institutional and legal reforms.” As the violence surged during Funes’ first two years in office, and as the economy contracted, reducing the resources available for implementing a more comprehensive strategy, Funes called on the Salvadoran army to carry out anti-gang initiatives. In doing so, Funes gave the army “broader powers, permitting it to conduct patrols, perform searches and arrest criminals caught red-handed as well as to maintain security at the prisons”.

In 2011, Funes replaced Manuel Melgar, a civilian from the FMLN, as minister of justice and public security with the recently retired General David Munguia Payes in another worrisome sign that the country was militarising public security. The truce is giving not only gang members a second chance. It is giving President Funes and the Salvadoran state a second chance.

Funes and his government deserve credit for supporting the truce and for reaching out to national and international businesses and organisations for support. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the Funes administration has used the truce to restart its basic approach to poor and marginalised youth. It’s not clear that they have made a commitment to scale back the Mano Dura policies of recent years that contributed to this violence.

The government and its security forces need to stop seeing every young person as a gang member or a potential gang member. According to some gang members, the truce has been difficult to sustain because some police officers have been arresting and beating gang members just “for fun“. In the months following the truce, the police have continued to round up suspected gang members – even though it is unclear what crimes they had committed other than being a gang member. Imprisoning Salvadoran youth because of their tattoos and general appearance rather than their behaviour contributed to an escalation of violence and needs to stop.

It was not too long ago that General David Munguia Payes said that the Salvadoran government has a “Plan B” which is more direct against the problem, although he would not go into details. If Plan B is some super super Mano Dura, the Funes administration will have learned nothing.

For the truce to hold, it’ll take more than a change of heart by gang members. The Funes administration needs to recommit itself to a comprehensive anti-gang strategy that emphasises prevention, reintegration and rehabilitation. It also needs to reform the country’s public security institutions away from a Mano Dura approach to societal ills.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American Politics here.