A 40% drop in murder rates in El Salvador in mid-March prompted the media and the public to take a closer look at the security tactics being employed by the country´s Ministry of Justice and Public Security, now under the leadership of retired military officers. In an investigative report by the digital news magazine El Faro, reporters claimed secret negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs – the country´s two largest street gangs – had led to the dramatic reduction in homicides. The accusation was echoed by national and international news sources, including the New York Times. The Security Cabinet as well as President Mauricios Funes denied the accusations, attributing the drop in murders to better policing and a truce between the two gangs negotiated by the Catholic Church.
El Faro´s accusations of a government negotiation stemmed from the fact that during the second week of March, more than 30 prisoners identified by security officials as national leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs were transferred from maximum security prisons to lower-level security prisons where they will now be allowed visits by family members and to have physical contact with their visitors. A prisoner transfer of this magnitude is unprecedented in Salvadoran history. According to El Faro – which cites an anonymous gang leader and anonymous sources within the Ministry of Public Security, the National Civilian Police, and various state intelligence agencies – in exchange for moving gang leaders out of maximum security prisons, the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs called on their members to halt all planned murders. Two of El Faro´s anonymous sources within the government also claimed that over $10,000 was being offered to the families of Mara Salvatrucha leaders as part of the negotiation; however, the rest of their sources claim that the government only negotiated the transfer of prisoners to more comfortable conditions.
El Faro´s accusation prompted distrust and suspicion from many who see any type of non-transparent negotiation with criminal structures as following in the steps of the country´s right-wing politicians – long accused of having shadowy ties and communications with organized crime structures. In a statement published on March 16 the non-governmental organization, the Foundation for the Study of the Application of Law (FESPAD), affirmed: “We are not in agreement with decisions that violate current regulations; transferring prisoners as a result of ‘negotiations’ between them and government functionaries is arbitrary and goes against the law and ethics. It is important that these negotiations be made transparent because, to the extent that crimes have been diminished as a result of this strategy, it would appear that they are also negotiating with other criminal structures, beyond the maras and street gangs.”
In response to the media attention and public scrutiny of the government’s role, the Security Cabinet and President Funes himself were obligated to respond and explain the circumstances of the supposed negotiation, flatly denying that what had taken place was a “government negotiation” and criticizing El Faro for what the government called “irresponsible journalism.” Funes explained that what had actually taken place was a mediation, carried out by the Catholic Church and done with the knowledge and the logistical support of his administration, that led to a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs and brought about the drop in murder rates. At all moments, government officials have emphasized that while they provided logistical support (including the transfer of gang leaders so they could relay news of the truce to members), the Catholic Church independently mediated the truce.
The Armed Forces Chaplain Fabio Colindres as well as Raúl Mijango, a former advisor to Minister of Security Munguía Payés when he was Minister of Defense, announced that they had mediated the truce on behalf of the Catholic Church, though it wasn’t until almost a month after the news came out that the official Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church expressed any public support for the negotiations. Monsignor Colindres and Mijango have since revealed many details of the mediation process. In an interview with El Faro, Mijango claims families of gang leaders approached himself and Monsignor Colindres for support which gave way to a series of meetings with imprisoned gang members. According to Mijango, the imprisoned leadership of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs – an older generation of gang members more capable of reflecting on the damage they had done to society – had lost control of the gang cliques operating in the neighborhoods. Mijango not only describes a process of reflection with the gang leaders that led to some initial agreements like the truce, but also a process of consolidating and reasserting the power of the older gang leaders in order to assure that the younger membership that is not in prison would respect the leadership’s negotiations. Mijango says this is only the beginning of a process that could be used to resolve the deeper societal issues that are at the root of the gang phenomenon.
The official explanation of a Catholic Church-negotiated truce has begged many questions that have been put out by political analysts and community journalists, including: How can the government claim the mediation was done independently by the Catholic Church, when Monsignor Colindres is a military chaplain and Mijango was a paid advisor to Minister of Security Munguía Payés until last December? How can the contradiction between a security policy focused on destroying gangs be explained? Why would the government take a major political risk like the massive transfer of what it considers its most dangerous prisoners without any guarantee beyond a verbal agreement by gang leaders to lower murders?
Many are also asking the question: Where are the policies aimed at resolving the root problems that lead to gang violence in El Salvador? While murders between gang members have decreased, extortions (known as la renta or “the rent”, a monthly fee charged to residents and business owners by the gang that operates in their area) continue at the same levels. Even President Funes acknowledged that the money gang members get from extortions is used primarily to support their families and pay legal costs, and that his government’s goal is “that the extortions stop being the only economic means available to young people who can’t find other sources of income or other opportunities than to become part of a gang.” Funes went on to reiterate a call he has been making since his presidency began, for all sectors of society to come together in a national agreement to create policies and contribute to resolving the country’s security crisis, rooted in social and economic inequality. While Funes is emphasizing the importance and urgency of such an agreement, the actual security policies being enacted by his government reflect a tendency towards greater repression and militarization – reflective of the US government’s failed security strategy for all of Latin America.