“Historic Opportunity” to Build Peace: El Salvador’s Gangs Maintain Truce

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On September 24, 2012, imprisoned gang leaders and religious leaders in El Salvador celebrated the 200th day of a truce signed by leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as the MS or MS-13) and the 18th Street gang, the largest street gangs in El Salvador. Refugees fleeing El Salvador’s Civil War formed the gangs in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way to defend themselves against other street gangs. However, as US deportation policy became more aggressive during the 90s, the gangs spread into Central America, where they took root and grew rapidly. The original pact to stop murders related to territorial disputes has expanded since it was signed in March; both gangs have announced they would designate schools as “Peace Zones” and stop all forced recruitment. Prior to the non-violence pact, El Salvador was considered the second-most violent country in the world, with 68 murders per 100,000 residents. Official data show that number has now gone down to 26 murders per 100,000 residents. In September, representatives of the Organization of American States (OAS) supervised the destruction of thousands of firearms turned over by the gangs. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime recommended that the non-violence pact be studied for application in other countries with high violence rates. According to MS and 18th Street gang representatives in El Salvador, their counterparts in Honduras and Guatemala have already asked their own governments to facilitate such a process. Civil society groups in the US have also launched initiatives to support the truce. The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) sent a delegation in July “at the invitation of Monsignor Colindres, the Salvadoran government and the leadership of both gangs to assess the viability of the truce.” While TAGSPPES celebrated the “historic” and “unique” opportunity the truce presents, the group identified several major challenges to expanding it into a true peace process, including the existence of repressive, Mano Dura (“iron fist”) security policies that criminalize gang membership, making rehabilitation work harder. Another challenge is the lack of government transparency about the process, which has generated distrust in the population. The truce was negotiated by Raúl Mijango, a former guerrilla commander and legislator who defected from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and Monsignor Fabio Colindres, the country’s military and police chaplain. However, from the outset, there were media allegations of a government negotiation with the gangs to reduce the murder rate, which President Funes and Minister of Public Security David Munguía Payés denied. But Minister Payés later told journalists that he and Mijango had developed the strategy with the president’s support and later approached Monsignor Colindres to accompany them and lend credibility to the process. President Funes denies this, maintaining that the truce was an initiative of the Catholic Church and his government merely facilitated the process, for example by giving mediators access to prisons. An editorial in El Faro points out the President’s dilemma:  “If he does not admit his participation in the most transcendental public security policy of the past years, it will be difficult for him to lead an effort to make it sustainable. If the government has not participated, then the truce depends exclusively on the good will of the gang members, and, therefore, cannot transform itself into a viable institutional strategy for decreasing violence.” Perhaps the major challenge is the lack of economic alternatives for gang members. As TAGSPPES points out, “Employment is a critical component of violence prevention.” The truce has not resulted in any substantial decrease in extortions, which serve as sustenance for gang members and their families. President Funes has called on the Salvadoran business sector to create job opportunities for rehabilitated gang members. Several members of the elite who say they want to provide support for reinsertion efforts have formed a Humanitarian Commission; however, the right-wing parties continue to oppose any substantial economic reform that would address the structural inequalities that marginalize poor youth and drive them into gangs in the first place. Despite the concerns, gang leadership has showed continued commitment to the truce, calling on the Salvadoran people to trust their sincerity and join the effort. “We want the Salvadoran society to believe in the action we are taking and we ask that all sectors of our society support it so that it can be consolidated into something that will last,” said Carlos “Viejo Lin” Mojica, a leader of the 18th Street gang, in a press conference to commemorate 200 days of the pact.

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