Has the gang truce in El Salvador failed?

Violent drug gangs have been confronting El Salvador with an enormous internal security problem for more than two decades; inhibiting development and prolonging poverty and structural violence. If one considers the 1992 peace accords that officially ended the civil war between the government and the FMLN, it is perhaps even hypocritical to speak of peace if more people are killed annually than during the war years. As socio-economic and political life is controlled by the gangs in many areas of the country, it often becomes near impossible to make a decent living without gang involvement. This dilemma is exacerbated by a distinct lack of youth employment opportunities that could provide viable alternatives to narco-trafficking. Even staying away from such activities, does not ensure personal safety as many innocent civilians get caught in the crossfire.

Image courtesy of FBI, ©2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of FBI, ©2007, some rights reserved.

MS and Barrio 18, two of the biggest drug gangs in El Salvador, have been fighting each other since the 1990s. Their conflict has claimed thousands of lives. In 2012, they agreed to a truce which significantly decreased the homicide rate in El Salvador from an average of 14 to an average of 5 murders a day. Through this historic agreement, El Salvador lost its long-standing title as country with the highest murder rate per capita to its neighbor Honduras.

The truce has been instrumental for building trust in the community and between the gangs. It has (at least temporarily) broken the viscous cycle of violent revenge killings. The agreement represents a milestone in the struggle to establish the rule of law, respect for human rights and human security and has laid down the potential foundations for socio-economic progress. It is the first time in El Salvador that a systematic non-repressive approach is employed to tackle internal security issues and protracted violence. The truce certainly has proven more effective and sustainable than “mano dura” repression.

The gang leaders were transferred from the overcrowded high security prisons to medium security prisons where they could meet with their communities and families. This privilege was granted under the condition that they would become facilitators of peace. Furthermore, the government has made an effort not only to prosecute gang violence, but to address the underlying causes for the phenomenon by establishing “peace zones” with education and employment opportunities (e.g. bakeries, farms, etc.).

The truce is a unique opportunity for the federal government to understand and address civil grievances through cooperation with international, regional and local actors. The new homicide statistics also give us an indication of how many people actually die due to the gang problem and how many are killed for other motives. Moreover, the implications of the truce go far beyond these developments. The new methods in combating gang crime are not only directly relevant to El Salvador, but also to its neighboring countries Guatemala and Honduras which are faced with similar problems. Consequently, the truce has sparked regional debate about internal security and has inspired Honduras to take on similar measures.

However, recently the initially highly praised gang truce has received a lot of criticism because the murder rate is on the rise again and the truce did not halt other crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking and sexual violence. In November 2013, the murder rate was back at 11 killings per day and has been rising since. In March 2014, the violence was at its worst since the truce was signed exactly two years earlier: 281 registered murders in 30 days. Recently, the Salvadoran government has even issued a statement claiming that the truce has failed and that attacks against police forces have increased.

A very important figure of the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, has also proclaimed that the truce has indeed failed. He urged the newly elected government led by President Salvador Sanchez Ceren to design a new and more comprehensive, transparent and community-oriented security strategy by learning from past mistakes.

However, it is important to note here that despite Bishop Fabio Colindres being one of the main mediators of the truce, the church was initially reluctant to participate in the negotiations. There have been accusations that the church was used by the government to legitimize the truce as an independent non-governmental party without official permission of church authorities. With Escobar’s comments, the church has now officially become critical of the truce.

The reasons for the decreasing success of the ceasefire are questionable. Members of the MS gang claim that the increase in the homicide rate in the area must be due to circumstances beyond their control. They claim to be firm supporters of peace and suggest that murders are being committed in their name without the gang s consent in a deliberate attempt to weaken the peace agreement. There are allegations of co-operation between private security firms and the national civil police who are accused of having vested interests.

The truce has not been participatory and inclusive. This has in fact reduced the people s trust in their government, their support for the truce and hope for a positive outcome. The popularity and success rate of the new employment opportunities remains limited as well.

The truce might also appear as an admission by the government that it could not defeat the gangs. It simultaneously gave the gangs to understand that they can assert political pressure on the government through violent activities. In fact, they have already threatened to use forced to boycott election and there is a growing fear that they can also pressure the government for immunity from prosecution.

Nevertheless, the recent criticism has sparked debate to modify and improve the truce. Whether the “peace” is sustainable or not remains to be seen in the coming months through how the criticism will be responded to. Overall, the truce has definitely been a historic step in radically reducing the crime rate in post-conflict El Salvador. Despite the recent spike in the homicide rate and debates about statistical inaccuracies, the murder rate undoubtedly remains below pre-truce levels. As there is unfortunately no “How To End Gang Violence For Dummies” guide, one step must be taken at a time through the trial and error principle.

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