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In fighting gangs, US should look to El Salvador

In combating the MS-13 gang, the Obama administration should look to El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. A negotiated 'truce' with gangs is possible in the US and Mexico.

By Mike Honda and Ami Carpenter / December 28, 2012

Victor Garcia, from Calle-18 gang, sits with his wife and daughter during a religious service at a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador June 16, 2012. Mr. Garcia, along with members of the rival MS-13 gang, entered an unprecedented, negotiated truce that authorities say has greatly reduced the homicide rate.

Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters/file

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Washington and San Diego

In October, the US Treasury named the notorious MS-13 gang a transnational criminal organization. This unprecedented action aims to sanction the violent American-born street gang and seize its estimated millions in assets – profits gained through drug and human trafficking.

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But the Obama administration should take a cue from El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach to gangs, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. Both of us have worked and traveled extensively in Central America – El Salvador in particular, which has its own MS-13.

In the United States, the MS-13 is made up of about 10,000 members, largely Salvadoran-Americans or Salvadoran nationals who fled El Salvador’s civil war. The US gang is part of a transnational criminal network of drugs, weapons, and violent gang culture.

In Central America, gang warfare has given way to a complex network of organized, violent crime and in many places has taken on characteristics of a “traditional” war. Measuring the intensity of violence in terms of homicides, the so-called "northern triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is now considered the most violent region in the world (aside from battlefields), averaging tens of thousands of gang-related deaths annually. The need for suitable civilian protection is obvious.

The legal framework for civilian protection is international humanitarian law, which binds state and nonstate actors to rules meant to protect civilians in armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has argued that international humanitarian law is applicable when any “war” amounts to armed conflict, defined by a certain intensity of violence: 25 to 1,000 war-related deaths per year and a sophisticated enough command structure that armed groups are actually able to implement such law. Clearly, the homicide figures in Central America far exceed the benchmarks for war-related deaths per year.

Earlier this year, in an effort to curb the violence, the government in El Salvador negotiated a groundbreaking deal with the Salvadoran MS-13 and a rival gang, Calle-18. In a bold move, mediators in El Salvador essentially extended the framework of humanitarian engagement to gang warfare, brokering a peace treaty between the two gangs and the Salvadoran government. After the deal, homicides decreased by 32 percent and kidnappings by 50 percent, as reported by The New York Times. In May, the gangs extended their truce to school zones and agreed to end forced recruitment of child soldiers. 

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