El Salvador's gang problem: the truth behind the truce

Will El Salvador's new president deploy state or civil society to address the recent spikes in violence, as politics threaten to unravel the wary truce between the country's gangs?

Carlos A. Rosales
4 August 2014
M18 gang member.jpg

A member of the 18th Street Gang (M-18) proudly shows off his tatoos in San Salvador, El Salvador. Demotix/Jan Sochor. All rights reserved. 

As El Salvador’s new president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, begins confronting the country’s many ills, the former guerrilla commander must move quickly to address the public security crisis affecting the population. With a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000 inhabitants, this Central American nation of six million ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Further complicating matters, the number of homicides has spiked dramatically in recent months. This sudden rise in violent deaths seemed to coincide with the country’s electoral calendar. Indeed, citizen security conditions worsened as a two-year old truce between the country’s biggest gangs began unraveling amidst a contentious electoral campaign.

Every opinion poll conducted in advance of the February (first round) and March (runoff) electoral contests revealed that public insecurity topped voters’ concerns. Early on, it became clear that opposition candidates sought to gain politically from lambasting the gang truce that both the outgoing government and the ruling party had handled poorly.   

El Salvador’s gang truce

A little over two years ago, the country’s two largest gangs—the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street (M-18)—agreed to a cease-fire through secret negotiations between their imprisoned leaders. The truce was reportedly mediated by a catholic bishop and a former guerrilla commander.

At first, the main protagonists in this drama were able to keep a lid on the process. But when word first got out that some of El Salvador's most dangerous criminals were being moved from high security penitentiaries to lower security prisons, some of the country's keenest investigative journalists began to suspect that something was amiss.

If high security detention centers had proven ineffective in curtailing the prisoner's criminal ways—extortions and contract killings were being ordered from behind bars—the move seemed senseless. After all, the inmates were the leaders of the country's most violent gangs who were serving long prison sentences for a series of offenses, including murder, kidnapping, and drug-related crimes.

When the story hit the news, officials claimed that the transfers were due to the prisoners' good behavior. But given the reputations and criminal records of the inmates, the government's claims rang shallow. Soon after, a series of contradictory statements by top government officials—including the president and the minister of public security—alerted the media that there was a bigger story behind the official version. 

Soon the media uncovered that the two rival gangs had secretly negotiated a truce with the government acting as a facilitator. What followed was a series of conflicting statements by officials that only fed the perception that the government had played a larger role in the affair, perhaps even as initiators of the process.     

Despite the questions raised about the lack of transparency surrounding the gang truce, the process produced immediate and impressive results. From a murder rate of 72 per 100,000 in 2012, a year later, the rate hovered around 36 per 100,000. That translated into a dramatic drop from an average of 14 murders a day, to between 5 and 6 in the same time period. 

Notwithstanding the positive outcome, the gang truce generated strong criticism and enormous distrust. Several public opinion polls showed that people's disapproval stemmed from the lack of clarity regarding the terms of the negotiations. The fact that no convincing attempt was ever made by anyone to try to explain what really happened, further damaged the credibility of the process. 

The government's steadfast denials about having played an active role in the negotiations also hurt the public perceptions surrounding the ceasefire by the warring gangs. Moreover, the truce also proved unpopular among residents of gang-controlled areas that constantly endure daily intimidation and extortion.  

The politics of citizen security: from “Mano Dura” to “Prevención”

The news reports about soaring violent crime in Central America have replaced the long-standing media focus on the internal armed conflicts that ravaged the isthmus only a couple of decades ago. Indeed, in the last decade, the number of fatalities has exceeded those reported during the conflicts that bloodied the region in the 1980s and 1990s.

The region's problems stem from a variety of circumstances, one of them geography. The isthmus is sandwiched between one of the world's largest drug producers in South America and the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States. The region is also beset by dire social and economic conditions. The high rates of unemployment and poverty—coupled with the availability of guns—guarantees significant numbers of young recruits for gangs and organized criminal actors.

The resulting conditions ensure that the existing weak, underfunded, and corrupt state institutions barely struggle to keep up with the immense challenges posed by criminal phenomena. Both, drug trafficking organizations and transnational youth gangs, represent enormous challenges that are severely testing governments’ capacities to keep the streets safe.       

Both, MS-13 and M-18, have deep roots in the United States. The latter was formed by Mexican youth in the Rampart section of Los Angeles in the 1960s. It was the first Hispanic gang to accept members from other races and to recruit members from other states. The MS-13 also originated in Los Angeles during the 1980s by Salvadoran migrants who had fled the country’s civil conflict. 

Both gangs expanded their operations to Central America. This process was accelerated after US authorities began deporting illegal immigrants, many with criminal records, back to the region after the immigration reforms of 1996. This has led many experts to contend that gang deportees “exported” a Los Angeles gang culture to Central America and recruited new members from the disenfranchised among the local populations.

Estimates of gang membership in Central America vary widely. US officials have estimated that there are 85,000 MS-13 and M-18 gang members in the northern triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). But in 2012, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated a more modest 54,000, with El Salvador having the highest concentration of gang members.

As gang members became increasingly bolder in asserting territorial control in many towns and cities in these countries, thus escalating their turf wars in the early 2000s, public demands for greater citizen security also grew. Suddenly, the region's internal security forces were faced with unprecedented challenges which they were ill-prepared to confront.

Salvadoran President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) adopted heavy handed anti-gang policies. His Mano Dura rested on a two-pronged approach: incarcerating large numbers of gang members for illicit association, and increasing prison sentences for gang membership and gang-related crimes. However, the anti-gang law championed by Flores that outlawed gang membership was later declared unconstitutional by the courts.

Flores' approach was also politically motivated. His right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party stood to gain electorally from the rejection of his Mano Dura by the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), based on human rights considerations. In the end, Flores succeeded in framing the issue in a way that portrayed the former guerrillas as pro-gangs. 

Flores' successor, Elías Antonio Saca (2004-2009), implemented enhanced anti-gang policies, called Super Mano Dura, that included greater police power to search and arrest suspected gang members and harsher penalties for convicted gang bangers. Saca too sought to gain politically from the worsening gang violence.

Honduran and Guatemalan right-wing politicians and presidential candidates were taking notice of events in El Salvador. They too began trumpeting hardline Mano Dura rhetoric in their political and campaign messages on the citizen security challenges facing their nations. And it was evident that, in desperation, citizens welcomed the heavy handed anti-gang language.   

Soon, however, it became evident that the Mano Dura policies implemented by Flores and Saca in El Salvador did not yield any significant results: the police kept arresting thousands of gang members only to be freed later by judges unwilling to apply the anti-gang laws or due to the inability of prosecutors to build solid cases. This revolving-door type of justice ended up emboldening and strengthening gangs.   

Concurrently, a growing range of actors unambiguously voiced their concerns over the effectiveness of the Mano Duraapproaches. Both, civil society organizations and the donor community openly advocated for violence prevention strategies—mainly aimed at youth—as a way to begin addressing the profound public security crisis facing the country. 

The basic premise behind violence prevention is that governments, as well as all social actors, must generate opportunities for youth in order to reduce their vulnerability to gang recruitment. The need to provide young men and women with positive and constructive life options becomes an imperative given the country’s long-standing inability to absorb thousands of youth entering the labor market annually. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” reads the mantra violence prevention practitioners live by.

The down side of violence prevention as an effective tool for citizen security is that not very many politicians understood its meaning at first. However, slowly but surely, political leaders at the local level particularly are beginning to grasp the political potential of preventing violence by offering their youth innovative and attractive programs to keep them off the streets and away from destructive influences.     

Is El Salvador's gang truce dead?

The country's new president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a top guerrilla commander during the country’s bloody twelve-year civil war (1980-1992), has been treading the waters carefully on gang violence. He was extremely vague during the presidential campaign on whether he would bolster the gang truce or simply scrap it.

After the election, Sánchez Cerén said even less, even though the month of May—just before being sworn in on June 1—turned into the bloodiest month in recent memory, reaching even pre-truce levels of 14 killings a day. In mid-May, in what gang members dubbed “Black Friday,” 36 people died violently. By Monday, the body count had reached 81. Most of the carnage was attributed to gang violence.

Many blame this dramatic rise in murders on the outgoing government for withdrawing its support for the truce when it became politically untenable in the lead-up to the electoral event. Officials had stopped allowing negotiators into prisons and hindered jailed gang leaders from communicating truce updates to one another and to members outside. 

Despite reports that gang leaders remained committed to the pact, the dramatic spike in homicides prompted the new government to announce that the gang truce had failed. Truce insiders say that if the new government does not display some level of commitment to support the process, the whole thing could unravel completely. And that could mean that gangs might confront the state, as recent attacks on police posts seem to suggest.

Since taking office, Sánchez Cerén has let his security and justice minister take the lead in dealing publicly with the current crisis. The official has hinted that the government might not have a choice but to support some sort of a peaceful arrangement between the gangs.

He has stated that the government will not be an obstacle if gang leaders—and other actors—choose to re-launch a ceasefire. But he also suggested that it might be beneficial to call the process differently, no doubt, in order to avoid the stigma of and the political backlash against the gang truce.

Whatever happens however, the new government must lead a credible effort to depoliticize citizen security. It must also lead a national effort to find a credible and comprehensive solution to gang violence. This requires the capacity to galvanize civil society organizations, the private sector, local governments, political parties, the donor community and citizens to pool the necessary resources to design programs that tackle the underlying causes of youth and gang violence.

This undertaking will also require a fair share of institutional reform and strengthening as well as capacity building in order for the population to be able to rely on those state institutions like the courts and the police that provide much needed services to citizens. These efforts should allow for long-term sustainable solutions to the current crisis.

Similarly, any strategy must include comprehensive violence prevention components (primary, secondary and tertiary) aimed at youth. It is precisely, the lack of ambitious violence prevention approaches that rendered the gang truce as an isolated and an improvised process, and not part of an integrated approach to address gang violence. 

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