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From issue: Natural Resource Extraction in Latin America (Winter 2013)

Hard Talk

Can the gang truce in El Salvador help improve security?

Yes: David C. Brotherton; No: Carlos E. Ponce 

In this issue:
Illustrations by Wesley Bedrosian

The truce provides some breathing space for the government to create legal opportunities for Salvadoran youth.

David C. Brotherton

Can the gang truce in El Salvador help improve Security? Yes

After decades of gang-related violence, resulting in unfathomable bloodshed and a worsening security crisis, change has come to El Salvador. One reason is the truce signed by the notorious street gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18—now nearing its one-year anniversary. In the process, El Salvador has transformed itself from a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world to a regional leader on solutions for combating gang violence.

The outcomes of the truce are unequivocal. The homicide rate has dropped 60 percent, from 14 per day before the truce to five per day today. Extortion has declined by 10 percent and kidnappings have fallen by 50 percent, according to the Salvadoran government. And due to less punitive crackdowns on gangs, fewer young people are serving time in the most overcrowded prison system in Central America, where 27,000 inmates languish in institutions built for 7,000. Now residents in poor communities once paralyzed by fear and intimidation are again engaged in rebuilding a society still ravaged by the civil war that ended 21 years ago.

The pre-truce conditions explain why the experimental solution of a truce gained traction. On the one hand, the street gang population was growing exponentially, fueled by booming drug and human trafficking trades and deportations of Salvadorans from the U.S. (a result of draconian U.S. immigration laws passed in 1996). On the other, the mano dura policies of gang repression led to dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, many of which were controlled by gangs. The demoralized and underfunded Salvadoran police force, which has an appalling human rights record, offered little resolution.

The thousands of lives lost in El Salvador due to acts of honor, revenge and obligation to the gangs triggered a fresh approach. Responding to the acute war fatigue in the country, Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés sat down with skilled mediator Raúl Mijango and Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to craft a proposal that offered something different.

As was the case with the peace accords that halted the 12-year civil war in 1992, getting buy-in from stakeholders involved in the conflict was instrumental to the successful negotiation of the truce. The wins were clear to all sides: in return for stopping the current bloodbath, the gangs would earn relief from law enforcement pressure; the church could continue to broker peace deals, as it has done for decades; the government—though not directly involved in the negotiations—would be seen as helping to restore the rule of law and appear progressive; and the OAS could remain a relevant conflict mediator in the region.

The gangs themselves represented the most important piece of the deal. They needed to agree to put down their arms, and it proved to be in their interest. Similar to New York City during the height of gang violence in the 1980s, El Salvador had endured a critical mass of suffering across generations. Street youth were no longer convinced that reproducing the cycle of vengeance made sense, especially when the threats of hunger and unemployment are more compelling.

The truce is working—and will continue to do so—as long as the gangs’ leadership sees continued benefit.

The idea of a gang truce certainly isn’t new, even in El Salvador. Homies Unidos, a nonprofit group comprising ex-members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs based in both the U.S. and El Salvador, had been campaigning for a truce for years. By early last year, the idea had taken hold among active gang members.

In addition to the violence, their frustration over mass incarceration—whether gang-related or not—brought the gangs to the table. Interviews with leaders on both sides, many of whom have spent time behind bars, reveal that prison reform is a priority. As a basis for the truce, leaders demanded transfers from maximum-security to lower-security prisons, where family visits are permitted. The government complied as a good-faith gesture to commence the truce, and 30 leaders were moved from the Zacatetecoluca high-security prison.

While the benefits of the peace-making process are clear, skeptics still question its sustainability.

The truce itself is not the final answer to the profound structural problems that give rise to gangs. President Mauricio Funes’ government must seize this chance to offer real hope to the thousands of youth who feel they don’t have a future. Government and civil society efforts to increase educational opportunity, facilitate access to dignified employment and provide a vested interest in the political system will make these marginalized individuals feel like they have a place in the country’s democracy—one that is far away from gang life.

Thinking long-term, the Salvadoran government needs to place the issue of deportations on the agenda of its bilateral relations with the United States. It is in the interests of both countries that gang-affiliated Salvadoran deportees can be effectively integrated into Salvadoran society, outside of gang culture. At the very least, this will require the U.S. to recognize that its deportation policies are producing extraordinary social problems for receiving nations and that resettlement programs funded by the U.S. aimed specifically at this population have to be part of the solution.

The truce has effectively produced a new political and cultural moment. It is not business as usual. The gang bangers have rejected their stereotypical image and opted for peace. It is the perfect time for those with the power and resources at both the local and international levels to follow suit.


Truces show that gangs are more sophisticated, not that they have renounced the criminal lifestyle.

Carlos E. Ponce

Can the gang truce in El Salvador help improve Security? No

El Salvador, a country that has struggled with crime control issues, insecurity and weak public institutions for decades—and ranks as the second most violent nation in the world—has recently witnessed a shaky truce between the country’s main rival pandillas (gangs), Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The truce is praised by government officials and supporters as a progressive strategy to increase security and offer an alternative to the tough-on-crime policies that are prevalent in Central America.

But while the two gangs have put aside their mutual hostilities, the truce masks deeper threats to El Salvador’s public safety.

The drop in lethal violence that has followed, which the Salvadoran police claims has reached a 60 percent decline in homicides across the country, is a noteworthy and most welcome statistic. But truces distort crime data, painting a false picture of a successful and effective law enforcement apparatus that belies the reality.

In reality, MS-13 and Barrio 18’s crime strategies have merely evolved, becoming more discrete and ambitious, but no less severe.

Still, truces between rival gangs are important milestones in their evolution. Mutual agreements to end reciprocal violence indicate that emotions have been subtracted from the decision-making process. A cost-benefit analysis takes over as the determining factor in gangs’ modus operandi as they pursue more complicated and lucrative criminal activities to maintain a low profile.

Salvadoran gangs have reached this level of criminal sophistication. MS-13 members in El Salvador, for example, were recently arrested for allegedly operating a counterfeit operation, fabricating and selling false government-issued identification cards. High-ranking police executives have also publicly confirmed that Salvadoran gangs are now involved in loan sharking schemes, money laundering and narcotics dealing and distribution.

Perceived drops in violence, aside from masking other forms of crime, can encourage law enforcement not to pursue initiatives to combat organized crime as aggressively as before.

Less visible crimes translate into a diminished societal demand to improve security. Politicians in turn become less motivated to assign resources to the criminal justice system, resulting in the stagnation and deterioration of the public safety apparatus. Competing budget demands and lack of resources worsen this dynamic, especially in El Salvador, where scarce resources must be continually reallocated to fill never-ending expenditure gaps. Recently, Salvadoran police officers organized an unprecedented agency-wide radio blackout as a way to protest several months of unpaid wages and pressure authorities.

Weakened law enforcement agencies make it easier for gangs to operate without fear of reprisal, allowing them to accumulate enough resources and status to penetrate public institutions. This is especially dangerous when gangs are venturing into more lucrative crime activities, which afford them new opportunities to amass more influence and power.

Perhaps the most damaging element of El Salvador’s gang truce is what key stakeholders—particularly the state—have conceded and will continue to concede to keep it going. Though the Salvadoran government claims to have not been directly involved in negotiations with gangs to force a truce, the government is inextricably wedded to its success. And in the current framework, it is MS-13 and Barrio 18 that hold the cards, not President Mauricio Funes’ government.

The more political capital the state invests in the longevity of the truce, the more emboldened the gangs will feel to make demands—and significant ones at that. This process is already under way in El Salvador. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s announcement of a significant reduction in reported homicides in March 2012 coincided with the transfer of the command structure of  MS-13 and Barrio 18 from the maximum-security prison to less secure ones. Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés has since admitted that the transfer was a strategic concession aimed at consolidating the pandillas’ leadership, which would help ensure the gangs’ adherence to the terms of the truce.

Gang leaders have also negotiated better amenities within prisons, such as plasma TVs, cable, fast food deliveries, and an increase in the frequency of, and time allowed for, conjugal visits. There have also been more troubling concessions granted to keep the truce intact. One concession designates certain municipalities as “sanctuaries,” where the government has to suspend certain police operations. Gang members have also been incorporated into community groups to serve as representatives of their organizations at the local level.

An additional concession is the repeal of laws specifically designed to combat criminal structures, like the Gang Proscription Law and Article 20 of the Criminal Procedural Code that allows prosecutors to offer immunity to offenders in exchange for their testimony against fellow members of a criminal group.

These concessions will facilitate criminal operations, diminish law enforcement efforts, and create conditions that facilitate gang infiltration of public institutions and community groups, and corruption of state officials.

The case of Mexico offers a clear warning for El Salvador. For decades, political circumstances obligated Mexican narcotics organizations to operate with relatively reduced violence, making them less visible and thus attracting less attention. But years of negotiations and concessions between the gangs and the Mexican government resulted in a deteriorated security apparatus and fortified crime syndicates.

When conditions shifted, the criminal groups had operated unchecked for long enough that they had infiltrated institutions and held enough resources and influence to shift the balance of power in their favor.

El Salvador should learn from the experience of its northern neighbor, and be smarter about how much it invests in the current truce—and, by extension, how much it concedes to MS-13 and Barrio 18. Negotiations between the government and gangs should cease immediately. Instead, a comprehensive approach to fight these criminal organizations must be designed and executed.


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