Two wildly divergent views of what is happening with the truce between El Salvador‘s two foremost gangs converge in one important way: they both paint a bleak picture for the near future of the fragile agreement and of the country.
The truce — forged in early 2012 by government-sanctioned mediators, a Bishop from the Catholic Church, and the imprisoned leaders of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) — initially lowered homicides from an average of 14 to 6 per day (see United Nations graphic below). However, the agreement has come under scrutiny for its opaque nature and its exclusivity, as well as its inability to lower the incidence of other criminal activities such as extortion. Most recently, attacks on police, coupled with rising homicide rates, have led some to claim the truce is effectively over.
These days, depending who you ask, the truce is one of two things:
1. A means for the gangs to strengthen their political, social and military standing in an attempt to become a sophisticated narco-criminal-political movement.
2. A way for the gangs to better incorporate themselves into society via social and economic programs while lowering levels of violence amongst themselves and against authorities.
The gap between these visions has been widening during this period of political flux. President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party does not take power until June 1, and has not yet taken a public position on the truce. Meanwhile, outgoing President Mauricio Funes has placed his government on autopilot, in particular Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo.
The Truce Critics
Regardless of one’s position on the truce, Perdomo is at the center of the analysis. For critics of the initiative, he is a hero. At nearly every turn, Perdomo has undermined the truce, most recently saying the gangs have become “narcopandillas” who are moving drugs for international cartels and stocking up on weapons.
Officials have also made several still unsubstantiated claims that some members of the MS13 were trained by at least one former military officer. The MS13, they say, are trying to create a special “grupo de choque,” or shock unit, which could, they say, carry out assassinations of high-level officials or well-protected rivals.
The gangs do appear to be evolving, and some do jobs for transnational drug traffickers, especially in border areas, several pro- and anti-gang truce experts consulted by InSight Crime said. These jobs include protecting drug loads and possibly serving as low-level assassins.
And the conflict between the gangs and the authorities is clearly getting worse. There have been as many as 14 attacks on police in the last month, a top-level member of the government told InSight Crime. Police said there have been close to 50 attacks this year.
Among these was a lethal and well-planned ambush of a police unit. The ambush, which occurred in La Libertad province the night of April 5, was troubling because it was deliberate and pre-meditated, according to officials’ statements to the press. It involved a telephone call of distress that lured police from their station to the area where suspected members of the Barrio 18 used M-16 automatic rifles in an assault that left one policeman dead and two others injured.
The latest attack came April 14, when suspected gang members killed a San Salvador police agent, La Prensa Grafica reported.
Meanwhile, the truce mediators blame Perdomo for escalating the conflict. They point to a law that Perdomo pushed through last year that gave security forces more leeway in protecting themselves.
The chief mediator of the truce, Raul Mijango, told InSight Crime in an interview that at least 26 gang members had been killed by security forces this year. And gang leaders say their members are defending themselves from the assaults.
“This [the attacks] is a consequence of so much repression,” one gang leader told El Faro.
Homicide rates have also risen from an average of six per day to close to nine per day. Perdomo says this is the gangs’ way of pressuring the incoming government to support the truce.
The mediators say this is because the security minister has cut off contact between the gangs and the mediators. Specifically, Mijango says that without access to the jailed leaders, the mediators cannot slow the “chains of revenge” that reverberate between and amongst gangs in El Salvador and drives much of the violence that has given this country one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
This may be partly true. Similar “interruptors” operate in different cities in the United States, and their ability to access gang leaders is crucial to their ability to limit the violence. Perdomo also removed key police personnel that were working closely with Mijango’s team to intercept gangs when they were not complying with the truce.
Moreover, the rise in homicides does coincide with Perdomo’s arrival as security minister. As the graphic below illustrates, murders increased after Perdomo took over in June 2013 (source: El Salvador police). This pattern has continued through 2014.
Obstacles to Funding
That the truce became more of a band-aid rather than a long-term solution was one of the major criticisms of the process. But Mijango and other supporters of the truce say this was because the promised government, business and international aid never materialized.
The aid itself seems to be pushing would-be negotiators and facilitators of the truce into rival camps as well. The potential resources are substantial. USAID said last year it had $20 million for violence prevention programs, which the government and business groups said they would match. The European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and others have committed, or are considering committing, tens of millions more for violence prevention and other social programs geared towards at-risk youth.
But without any clear interlocutors, donors have had trouble figuring out where to channel the money. The political obstacles are also formidable. The US government does not support the truce, while the European Union is more open to working within the context of the truce.
When donors have opened up for bids, it has become a free-for-all. One organization that vied for funding for violence prevention programs from the European Union told InSight Crime that 57 organizations applied.
Everyone seems to be getting in line. Mijango works with violence prevention and social organizations but says he does not receive direct remuneration from his involvement. For his part, Perdomo is laying the groundwork for what his supporters say is a more inclusive, cohesive peace plan, which excludes the current mediators from the process, and he appears to have the backing of the US government.
In the meantime, the situation has only gotten more tense. Even Mijango acknowledges the truce is on life-support during this transition period and says the gangs are losing “patience.”
“They need to move the patient to another set of doctors,” Mijango said of Perdomo’s handling of the gang situation. “Otherwise, it won’t get cured.”
The consequences could be dire, truce participants and observers say. Mijango says if things completely fall apart, the country may face “25 to 30 homicides a day.”