On June 17th, vigils and masses were held in several prisons in El Salvador, as well as in Los Angeles, CA, to commemorate 100 days of a truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang.
In March of this year, news broke in El Salvador that the Catholic Church had mediated a truce between the two gangs, dramatically lowering the country’s murder rate. While many questioned whether the news of a church-mediated truce was a cover-up for opaque government negotiations with the gangs, President Mauricio Funes proposed using this opportunity to begin a process of dialogue with various social sectors to arrive at a National Agreement to resolve the country’s security crisis.
Though President Funes has been sharply criticized for appointing former military officers who have advocated a repressive approach to violence to the top public security positions in late 2011, he re-affirmed his commitment to addressing the root causes of the violence. As he stated, “I propose that this national agreement begin with immediate attention to the social problem that is at the root of the criminal actions of the gangs, which is social exclusion and lack of opportunities for employment, education, health and recreation for Salvadoran youth.”
Three months later, official data shows the decrease in the murder rate to be holding strong. However, important questions and doubts remain.
One major question is about whether the drop in murder rates has been as significant as the government reports. El Salvador does not keep centralized statistics on murders; rather, multiple government institutions keep their own data. The Ministry of Security reports that prior to March 2012, there was an average of 14 murders per day and it has since dropped to 5 murders per day. The government’s Forensic Science Institute (Instituto de Medicina Legal in Spanish) reports the number has gone from 14 to 7. Regardless, both statistics represent a significant drop.
However, coinciding with the drop in murder rates, the Forensic Science Institute and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office have both reported a significant increase in reports of missing persons. To date, 836 reports of missing persons have been filed in 2012; during the same dates in 2011, there were 636 reports of missing persons. Many wonder if that increase actually represents murders that are not being reported as such, either because murderers are now hiding victims’ remains or because of deliberate manipulation of the statistics.
Assuming that the official data accurately reflects a real drop in murder rates, the question that follows is whether this reflects the beginning of a real solution to the gang phenomenon in El Salvador. In press statements, incarcerated leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang have expressed repentance and a desire to be part of the solution. As Mónica Nova recently reported for Colorlines Magazine, “Gang leadership and brokers of the truce say that the development is more than a cease-fire, but rather the beginning of a peace process.”
In their talks with military and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres and former defense advisor Raúl Mijango, an initial agreement was reached to stop all murders of other gang members, police, soldiers, and prison guards, as well as their families. In early May, both gangs announced that as a further gesture of good will, they had declared all schools “Peace Zones” and stop the forced recruitment of students and youth.
No agreements have been reached, however, around two major areas of gang activity: small-scale drug sales and extortion (known as the “renta,” a fee charged to residents and businesses in gang-controlled neighborhoods). President Funes himself has acknowledged that this is because drug sales and extortion are the primary source of income for most gang members and their families, which only underscores the necessity of creating viable economic opportunities for marginalized youth.
During the 100 days commemoration at Izalco prison, gang leaders made it clear that while their intention was to maintain the truce, they were awaiting concrete proposals from the government in terms of job and economic opportunities. According to the AP, 18th Street gang leader Oscar Armando Reyes stated, “We want to reach a definitive cease fire, to end all the criminal acts of the gangs. But we have to reach agreements, because we have to survive. There was talk of job plans, but we haven’t gotten any answers, and it is time for the government to listen to us.”
In the United States, the 100 day anniversary of the truce was celebrated by members of a Transnational Advisory Group for the Peace Process in El Salvador, which “ formed to serve as an international observer to this process and to bring together resources to help in the short and long term goals of the peace process. “ Made up of community organizations and individuals across the US, predominantly from Los Angeles, the Washington, DC metro area, the Advisory Group plans to bring an international delegation to El Salvador.
For further analysis, including of US foreign and domestic policy that has contributed to the rise in gang violence in El Salvador, please read the following:
El Salvador’s Historic Gang Truce May Show Pathway to Peace in the U.S., by Mónica Novoa, for Colorlines
Gang Truce in El Salvador, by Mike Allison, for Al Jazeera