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Gang Truce Faces Hurdles In El Salvador

September 16, 2013

An experimental “tregua” (truce) signed last year by rival street gangs has cut El Salvador’s horrific homicide numbers by more than half. A remarkable turnaround for a country that until recently had the world’s second highest per capita murder rate, the Salvadoran experience is inspiring similar efforts in Honduras. Guatemalan leaders are taking note as well, prompting some wishful thinkers to contemplate a “second peace” for Central America.

And yet for all of its apparent success, the 15-month-old gang truce currently finds itself on shaky ground. A mid-May ruling by the Consejo Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) forced the government’s point man on the project, then-Security Minsiter David Munguía Payés, to resign. Shortly afterwards, El Salvador’s main opposition party began to openly attack the truce, saying there will be “no more negotiating with criminals” should it win back the presidency in next February’s national elections. Gang leaders themselves say they are still committed to the cease-fire, though just how much control they exercise over their tens of thousands of criminal underlings remains an open question.

Munguía took over as security minister in late 2011, pledging to cut the country’s homicide rate by 30% within a year. Few excepted he would have much success. His immediate predecessors had all tried – and failed – to tame El Salvador’s violent crime epidemic. Thanks to the gang truce, however, Munguía proved his skeptics wrong, earning himself a healthy dose of political capital in the process.

In 2009, the year President Mauricio Funes took office, police reported nearly 4,400 murders, a staggering number for a country that, in terms of both population and land area, is roughly the same size as the US state of Massachusetts. The numbers dropped slightly in 2010 but again topped the 4,300 mark in 2011. Last year, after the truce went into effect, the body count suddenly plunged: the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) registered 2,576 murders, the lowest number since 2003. “We’ve distanced ourselves from the embarrassing position of being the second most violent country in the world,” Munguía told reporters last November.

The Funes administration originally tried to downplay its role in the cease-fire, crediting negotiators Fabio Colindres, a Catholic bishop, and Raúl Mijango, a former Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerilla, with leading what was they claimed was an independent initiative. Months later, however, Munguía hinted that the gang truce had always been part of his “strategy.” Many observers suspect he was in fact one of the chief architects of the process.

Despite his accomplishments, Mijango was suddenly – and quite dramatically – forced out of his post last month, as was Francisco Salinas, whom President Funes appointed in early 2012 to head the PNC. Both are retired army generals. As such, neither should have been selected to occupy top-level public security functions, the CSJ’s Sala de los Constitucional declared on May 17. The ruling echoed complaints from many on the left, including some members of Funes’ own coalition, who denounced the appointments of Mijango and Salinas as a violation of the El Salvador’s 1992 Peace Accords. Funes, a political moderate, came to power in 2009 with backing from the FMLN, a left-wing political party that originated during the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992) as a coalition of guerilla forces. The country’s previous post-war presidents all hailed from the far-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA).

President Funes accepted the CSJ ruling, but made it clear that disagrees with the court’s reasoning. In a radio interview, he accused the Sala de lo Constitucional of having an “anti-military” bias. “The justices don’t understand that, 20 years after the Peace Accords went into effect, the Armed Forces is no longer the repressive institution it once was,” said Funes. The president also insinuated that the ruling may have been politically motivated. It is “curious,” he said, that the court would wait until now – eight months before the next presidential election – to reach a decision it could have made more than a year ago.

War of words

Leaders of El Salvador’s street gangs, or maras, were also critical of the CSJ ruling, calling Mijango’s dismissal a “low blow.” They insisted, nevertheless, that they will continue honoring the truce. “This process doesn’t depend on one minister,” jailed representatives of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18, Mao Mao, Mirada Locos and La Máquina gangs explained in a press statement released from the “La Esperanza” jail in San Salvador. “The process will continue regardless what the [CSJ] justices or anyone else decides,” their statement read.

Keeping that promise could prove easier said than done. A week after the Sala de lo Constitucional decided to oust Mijango and Salinas, the peace process received another, far more overtly political blow. In a new campaign spot, ARENA’s presidential candidate, San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, openly attacked the truce and accused the Funes administration of “negotiating with criminals.” Quijano had previously refrained from criticizing the peace process. Now he claims he “doesn’t believe in the truce because the gang members haven’t given up crime.” In an early June television interview, the opposition candidate said the truce “benefits the gang leaders and fosters crime.”

Mara leaders Carlos Mojica Lechuga (Barrio 18), aka “Viejo Lin,” and Dionisio “El Sirra” Umanzor (MS-13) responded to Quijano’s strategy-shift with some political provocations of their own. During a May 29 television event hosted by a well-known evangelical pastor named Edgard López Bertrand, El Sirra urged people not to vote for anyone who “boycotts” the peace process. “The next government should support this,” he said.

Questions immediately surfaced about how and why the two gang leaders – who are both serving long jail sentences – were allowed to leave prison and appear on the popular pastor’s live broadcast. President Funes’ new public security minister, Ricardo Perdomo, responded to the controversy by sacking the director general of the country’s national prison system, Nelson Rauda, another key player in the 15-month-old gang truce. Perdomo, an economist who previously served as director of the Organismo de Inteligencia del Estado (OIE), also decided that imprisoned gang leaders will no longer be allowed to participate in jailhouse press conferences. Critics of the move worry that jailed mara leaders like Viejo Lin and El Sirra will now have more trouble communicating with, and thus controlling, their active underlings.

Trying to “stay apart”

Even with the help of periodic press conferences, gang leaders were only ever able to exert partial control over what goes on in El Salvador’s violent streets. In Ilopango, an outlying district of San Salvador, 19 people were murdered in January 2012 – before the truce went into effect. This January, the PNC counted four homicides. Two people were killed in February, three in March, and just one in April. The municipality is undoubtedly safer now than it was prior to the cease-fire. But the gangs haven’t gone away. Nor have the rivalries, based on years of mutual hate, that threaten to explode at any time.

“I can never imagine MS-13 as my friends, never,” Javier García, a young Ilopango resident and MS-18 gang member, recently told a reporter from The Observer, a British weekly. García, whose cousin, Kevin, was killed three months ago after wandering into MS-13 territory, is currently working as a baker in one of several government-backed reinsertion projects underway in Llopango. “If I saw [a member of MS-13] now, I would hit him, for Kevin. For this truce to work, we have to stay apart,” he said.

Inevitably, the rival gangs still cross paths. Residents in Llopango’s Reparto Las Cañas neighborhood told the online newsite El Faro that they have heard at least half-a-dozen shootouts in recent weeks. On the morning of June 1, following one such gun battle, police found 120 bullet casings on a neighborhood soccer field. Miraculously, no one was killed. But the incident frayed nerves and caused tensions to soar among local gang members, many of whom – like Javier García – have involved themselves in projects aimed to reinforce the truce.

Earlier this year, as part of the peace process, neighborhood gang leaders exchanged phone numbers. Following the June 1 shootout, one of those men told El Faro he is now far less inclined to communicate. “Before, we were calling each other to resolve problems. But right now I wouldn’t sit down with him… It’s not easy to sit down and talk with someone after they’ve pointed a gun at you,” he said.

(This article originally appeared June 2013 in LADB)

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