Violence-Free Cities Inaugurated as Second Phase of Gang Truce

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Gang members from Ilopango sign the initial Violence-Free City pact with local authorities.

On Tuesday, January 22, the municipality of Ilopango was inaugurated the first of 18 Violence-Free Cities, a new initiative in which local gang leaders agree to cease violence and crimes in exchange for a reduction in police operations and night raids and reinsertion programs for gang members. The program is being termed the second phase in a government facilitated gang truce that began in March 2012 and has significantly lowered official homicide rates.

The proposal for the Violence-Free Cities program came from the truce mediators, Police and Military Chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres and former guerilla commander and FMLN defector Raúl Mijango, who originally dubbed it “Sanctuary Cities,” but this phrase was quickly retired and exchanged for its current moniker at President Mauricio Funes’ urging.

The initiative was designed by the Technical Committee on Violence and Crime Reduction, comprised of representatives of El Salvador’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security, Organization of American States (OAS) representatives, the truce mediators, and members of the Humanitarian Foundation, a recently unveiled private sector effort led by Antonio Cabrales, ex-President of the right-wing think tank FUSADES, that purports to offer funding and technical support for the truce. It remains to be seen if the Humanitarian Foundation will serve as a civil society support or a guise for private sector exploitation of the process.

The municipality of Santa Tecla subsequently inaugurated the program on January 24th, with Quetzaltepeque and Sonsonate soon to follow as the first four to pilot the program. The Mayors of each municipality will create separate plans in dialogue with gang leaders in their cities to develop prevention and re-insertion programs. Minister of Justice and Security David Mungía Payés has promised that his Ministry will facilitate the collection of at least $74 million from the OAS, the United Nations and other donors to finance these local initiatives.

Few details have been revealed about what the Violence-Free Cities program will entail. In addition to concerns about empowering and legitimizing criminal structures, the press and public have voiced concerns about the lack of clarity around the Salvadoran government’s role in the truce. President Funes has so far refused to admit any direct government participation in the process, insisting on a vague “facilitator” title; this second phase of the truce, however, seems to indicate greater state involvement, with the Ministry of Justice and Public Security openly participating in the initiative’s coordination with municipal governments.

This new phase of the truce represents a departure from the failed “iron fist” and criminalization policies of past administrations and could indicate tangible improvements to the atmosphere of insecurity and fear that plagues the nation. But the program also seems to be largely out of sync with the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s ongoing militarization of poor communities and night raid arrests of suspected gang members that have been known to also target innocent community organizers.

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