In March 2012, the two most prominent Salvadorian gangs, the Maras Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18, concluded a cease-fire in the greatest secrecy. After years of fighting and extreme violence between them, the two gangs reached a secret accord to stop the constant massacre that broke so many families and communities. Following the conclusion of the truce, the number of homicides dropped by 41%, from 4,371 in 2011 to 2,576 in 2012, according to the National Civil Police (PNC). This change was unhoped-for in the country that presented the highest homicide rate on average in the region for the last decade. In a country of a little more than 6 million in population, the number of gang members is estimated at approximately 60,000. Therefore, change in the behaviours of gangs and their members may certainly affect the crime and victimization portrait of the country.
The truce was initially negotiated by the Monsignor Fabio Colindres, head chaplain of the Salvadorian military and police, and the ex-congressman Raul Mijango. The Funes administration, the first government directed by the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional since the end of the civil war in 1992, claimed at first that it was not involved in any ways in the negotiation of the truce. For its part, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the role played by the Bishop Colindres, illustrating the profound division within the institution.
Nonetheless, the truce was enabled by the transfer of the Salvatrucha’s and Barrio 18’s leaders from the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, known as Zacatraz, to regular detention centers. In exchange for stopping inter-gang violence, imprisoned leaders asked for improved detaining conditions, better access to family members, as well as the use of mobiles and television within the prison. Furthermore, the gangs require increased employment and reinsertion opportunities in their communities. While several of these requests address problems long referred to by local and international NGOs, the gangs’ demands also allegedly include means that would improve their ability to control more easily outside criminal activities, such as extortion.
With the relative success of the truce, more information filtered little by little about the role of the Funes administration in facilitating the negotiations. At the end of April, 13 months after the conclusion of the truce, the vice-minister of public security and justice officially met with the leadership of the MS-13 and B-18. A few days later, the president Mauricio Funes rejected the accusations against his government about negotiating with criminals. He argued that the Salvadorian state and the broader society have the obligation to respond to the demands of the gangs. For the last couple of weeks, the Funes administration has emphasized the support already offered to the different peace zones put in place under the truce, and has announced new reinsertion programs and economic initiatives in these communities. The current strategy adopted by the state is a complete departure from the repressive approaches used by the previous administration to deal with gangs and violence during the 2000s.
However, despite the relative success of the truce in reducing the number of homicides in the country, Salvadorians remain at best sceptical. In fact, a majority of Salvadorians are opposed to the truce. Opponents to the truce draw a hard line between the delinquent gang members and the innocent civilian population. They do not feel safer. In fact, based on the PNC, disappearances have increased and extortion is on the rise. Therefore, if the truce reduces inter-gang violence, it does not address other forms of criminality that plague the Salvadorian economy and society. A majority of Salvadorians feels like the state has bought the peace and given criminals advantages and privileges they do not deserve at the expense of the rest of the society.
Furthermore, from what I have been able to notice on the ground so far, the current reinsertion programs and economic initiatives put in place in the peace zone are insufficient to provide a real alternative to criminal activity and gang membership. Social services are limited when present, and there is very little opportunity for the youth.
If the Funes administration is really committed to sustainably reducing inter-gang violence, resources need to be deployed quickly and a fruitful dialogue with gangs and community leaders must be maintained. Little progress in terms of employment and living conditions will inevitably undermine the truce and lead, sooner or later, to the return of violence between gangs. Furthermore, to get the Salvadorian majority on board with its strategy, the government must address the pressing issue of extortion that affects the business community throughout the country. Finally, small criminality and violence unrelated to gangs remains fairly common in El Salvador and may in fact be the main reason why a majority of Salvadorians still feel unsafe. Despite the drastic reduction in violence, El Salvador remains more violent than other Central American countries such as Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The path to the sustainable reduction of violence in El Salvador remains long and complex. It will require the lasting commitment of the Funes government and its successors.
Gaëlle Rivard Piché is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.