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.