El Salvador’s gang truce: a lost opportunity?

Murderous month: a young woman, bearing a 'free hugs' placard, joins nearly half a million protesters against violence across the country in late March. Demotix / Luis Alonso López Martínez. All rights reserved.

Violence is escalating
again in El Salvador. March 2015 was the most violent month in over a decade, and the government is preparing army
and police battalions to fight the gangs. These
trends mark the definitive end of a process which started in 2012 with a truce
between the two main gangs—MS-13 and Barrio 18—and evolved into a more complex
and multidimensional approach to reducing violence, with a degree of
international support.

The process
was complicated, imperfect and subject to
public controversy but it stands as one of the
most significant examples worldwide of an effort to reduce violence through
negotiation with criminal groups. With an annual
homicide rate of 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador is one of the
most violent countries in the world. It is also
a notable example of the trend towards non-conventional, hybrid and
criminal violence.

A peace agreement reached in 1992 put an end to civil war and initiated a
peacebuilding process, which saw rebels of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) make a successful
transition to civilian and political life. The FMLN finally
won the presidency by a tiny margin in 2009, and by an even smaller sliver in
2014, overturning 20 years of rule by the right-wing Nationalist Republican
Alliance (ARENA).

Meanwhile, a complex
set of factors triggered a transformation of violence, which became criminal
and perpetrated by illegal armed groups, most notably the gangs (maras). A
profound crisis of public security has since shaken the country, as well
as neighbours Honduras and Guatemala. Successive governments have responded with ‘iron-fist’
approaches focused on crime suppression and militarisation of security. These policies,
although of limited effectiveness, have
helped to cement the electoral support of a population angered and traumatised
by decades of violence.

Surprise news

In March 2012 the country was taken by surprise by news of a truce between
Barrio 18 and MS-13, facilitated by two mediators (a former insurgent and
government advisor, and a Catholic bishop) and tacitly supported by the
government of the FMLN president, Mauricio Funes. Imprisoned gang leaders were transferred
from a maximum-security prison to other jails in exchange for a reduction in
violence. The gangs agreed to end forced
recruitment of children and young people, respect schools and buses as zones of
peace and reduce attacks on the security

In the succeeding months, the gangs surrendered limited amounts of weapons
and the government acted to address shortcomings in the overcrowded prison system,
such as softening visitor searches and removing the army from the task. For the first time since the war, the International Committee of
the Red Cross (ICRC) was invited to contribute and in October 2012 it
established a special mission to monitor human rights in prison. The drop in
homicides was immediate—from 14 per day to five.

The gangs’
leaderships and the mediators were discussing a list of issues to be included in an enlarged process with a wider
pacification agenda. Their Proposal
for a Framework Agreement for the Recovery of Social Peace in El Salvador included
reform of the prison system, a public-private body with gang participation to
oversee rehabilitation and reinsertion, derogation of the anti-gang law and removal
of the army from public-security duties. Notably absent was any demand for amnesty or reduction
of prison sentences. The proposals included suspension of all acts of violence,
voluntary surrender to security forces, decommissioning of weapons and
explosives, and an end to forced disappearances.

As more
details emerged, however, public opinion about the truce became increasingly polarised. The main opposition came from conservative
sectors, parts of the legal establishment and law enforcement, and the media. Contributing
to scepticism were unabated extortion and other violent
crimes, such
as ‘disappearances’—allied to concern about the potential empowerment and
legitimisation of criminal structures and a widely-held perception that violence was being rewarded.

But a second school of thought saw the truce as a way to reduce
violence and reintegrate gang members. This vision was shared by segments of
civil society and the Organization of American
which became an observer and guarantor of the process. A formal agreement with
the government resulted in the creation of a Technical Committee for the Co-ordination
of the Process of Violence Reduction in El Salvador.

the government remained equivocal. Funes and
other members refused to admit any participation and delivered contradictory
statements, which fed distrust and confusion. But the sustained impact on
violence and better understanding of the process gradually
legitimised it and allowed the government to acknowledge involvement.

The government’s ambivalence can be contextualised. This was the first
FMLN administration and conservatives controlled the National Assembly. The United States prohibits negotiations between a government and
a criminal organisation and in November 2012 it so
labelled the MS-13. The US is El Salvador’s
main trading partner and co-operation in trade and security has resulted in US support and
military and police aid from programmes such as the Central America Regional
Security Initiative. In what has been described as the performance of “a trapeze
artist”, the
FMLN has thus tried to develop progressive policies while not antagonising the
US, foreign capital and the Salvadoran establishment (in control of the media).

Transfer of gang leaders

The truce was supported by the minister of justice and public security, David
Munguía, a retired general and former minister of defence. Although his
appointment in 2011 (and the removal of FMLN members from those positions) was
largely interpreted as a move towards remilitarisation, he surprised his
critics by encouraging the first steps of the truce—authorising the transfer of
gang leaders to other jails. According to the analyst of Salvadoran politics Paolo Lubers, he and other generals took the initiative after improved
intelligence co-ordination convinced them that most violence was gang-driven.

came, however, from the Office of the Prosecutor and, later, sections of the
police. They alleged that the truce was an opportunity for the gangs to reorganise,
and that the drop in homicides was driving other crimes such as ‘disappearances’
and extortion. Some of this was a legacy of the peace accords, which disbanded
the old security forces, established the National Civil Police (PNC) and reined
in the armed forces.

The PNC comprised
civilians, demobilised guerrilla fighters and vetted members of the prior
security forces—whose most authoritarian members, however, were able to
secure the most prominent positions in the new service, particularly during the two
decades of ARENA governments. The police force is thus politicised and plagued
by poor performance, corruption and authoritarian practices. Meanwhile, the Office
of the Attorney-General (as with Supreme Court judges) is marked by political
appointments by the Legislative Assembly, which have benefited ARENA hitherto.

More complex

In 2013, the process entered a more complex second
phase, centred on the creation of
violence-free municipalities. These ‘peace zones’
were based on agreement among local authorities, gangs and facilitators, with groups
committing to cease violence and crime in exchange for a reduction in police
operations and raids and reinsertion programmes. The first four
municipalities, presented in January 2013, were soon
extended to 11, with a combined population of more than 1m (out of 6m in all in El Salvador) and support from the
OAS and the European Commission.

Notably absent was any demand for amnesty or reduction of prison sentences.

Mayors from
both main parties, the FMLN and ARENA, participated in the initiative. Again, an
ambivalent government promised, but then failed to deliver, grants and loans for
prevention and rehabilitation. In Ilopango, the first peace zone, reduced violence
presented an opportunity for the creation of a bakery and a chicken farm to
generate employment, and the local government set up education centres and
sports fields in marginalised neighbourhoods. But the mayor complained that the
municipality had not received any of the $9 million promised by the government.
Other cities were also left to their own devices.

In May 2013,
the process suffered a major blow: the Constitutional Court nullified the
appointment of Munguía as minister of justice and public security and forced
Funes to restructure the security cabinet. The new minister, Ricardo Perdomo,
proved a sharp critic of the truce. Amidst a polarised debate leading up to the
February 2014 presidential election, his hard-line discourse and the restrictions
placed on the mediation mechanisms weakened the process. The downward trend in
murder rates began to reverse, amid a turf war between two factions of Barrio

Support discontinued

At the beginning of 2015, the new president, the former rebel Salvador Sánchez Ceren, said he
would discontinue support for the truce. Leaders of the gangs were returned to the maximum
security prison of Zacatecoluca.

In March 2015 481
homicides were reported by the PNC (16 per day), a 52% increase on a year earlier.
There were six massacres and on average 4.5 persons ‘disappeared’ each day.

A recent report however suggests that the
truce has had a lasting effect on the geographical
distribution of violence. Murder figures remain lower than average in regions
where the truce was strong and coalitions
of local actors (such as mayors, churches and NGOs) took advantage of the
opportunity to promote new policies. The trend is even more striking in the
‘peace zones’: in seven the drop in murders has been sustained in spite of the setbacks.

But in other
areas violence is soaring and tough positions are gaining a foothold. Sánchez Ceren has announced the creation of three
battalions, with more than 1,200 troops, to fight crime in areas most affected
by violence. And the rightist business
association ANEP has hired the former
New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as an adviser.

Particular problems

This truce can be counted among so-called second-generation security promotion activities, which depart
from conventional top-down approaches and are forged on “formal and informal
cooperation with existing (including customary) sub-national institutions”. But
making peace with criminal (as against political) actors poses particular problems.

As James
Cockayne put it, these cases are fraught with moral and political
hazards, and there are critical questions. What is the desired end-state of
Is it a reduction of violence, a reduction of all criminal activities or
dissolution of the illegal actor? The response to these questions will largely
determine the contours of any negotiation in El Salvador and elsewhere.

Despite its flaws and shortcomings, the experience can however provide invaluable lessons.
Apart from a drastic reduction in homicides, it contributed to a recognition of
the social contours of the gang phenomenon and opened discussions at national
and international levels about prevention, reintegration and rehabilitation.

The truce also
demonstrated that a vast proportion of the violence afflicting the country was due to
inter-gang confrontation. It revealed gang leaderships with a capacity for
command-and-control and a sophisticated
understanding of their role in society. Their ability to articulate demands
surprised many, and to some extent changed conventional thinking.

But exploitation
of public security in electoral politics tends to favour hard-line approaches. As
criticism and polarisation grew to politically untenable levels, the government
adopted contradictory statements and policies and later distanced itself from
the process. An overall lack of planning and co-ordination hampered
effectiveness—not least because the civil-society actors with more experience
in working with gangs and communities were not involved.

Fear that the
gangs might use the truce to rearm and reorganise, and anger towards  perceived preferential treatment, is common in
countries in transition from war to peace and with schemes of disarmament,
demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants. The accumulated
experience of the global peacebuilding community can provide useful insights,
including the adoption of community-based approaches to reintegration. Similarly,
adaptation and use of mechanisms of transitional justice can help find a
balance between security, justice and reconciliation.

The truce in El Salvador has been a lost
opportunity to take advantage of reduced violence to strengthen the institutional presence in communities affected
by gangs and implement comprehensive approaches to prevention, reintegration
and reconciliation. Any future attempt will need stronger political commitment,
a long-term strategy and engagement with civil society and public opinion. Given
the scope of the problem and an estimated gang membership in the tens of
thousands, socio-economic programmes and opportunities are also imperative for
sustainability. But, for the time being, the horses of war are riding again. 

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