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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.

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The nine-month old ceasefire suggests that (at least in some countries) MS-13 and Calle-18 are highly structured enough to enforce humanitarian commitments throughout their far flung cells. The Organization of American States is monitoring the truce, lauded by its secretary general for stemming violence. Appeals from both gangs for the same multi-track diplomacy have now spread to Guatemala and Honduras.

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The MS-13 and Calle-18 gangs, comprised of roughly 70,000 members throughout a number of countries, had been attempting for several years to engage the Salvadoran government in a dialogue to these ends but previous administrations were not inclined to negotiate with the criminal networks. As the Red Cross has pointed out, governments aren’t quick to accept the principle of equality enshrined in international humanitarian law, which treats transnational criminal networks as equal in status to the governments fighting them.

Thus, following the same logic as the argument against talking to terrorists, Guatemala and Honduras have both rejected the viability of humanitarian engagement with MS-13 and Calle-18. Critics argue that the Salvadoran agreement is paramount to negotiating with terrorists and suspect that the gangs may use humanitarian commitments as bargaining chips to get, change, or otherwise influence their standing.

And indeed, MS-13 and Calle-18 leaders are asking for changes: affirmative action programs, governmental and public involvement for community policing, and the creation of economic opportunities. But the Salvadoran government is asking for significant changes too: for gang members to relinquish all weapons, commit no more crimes, and reveal the locations of mass graves where allegedly hundreds of gang victims are buried.

While the terms of the agreement aren’t entirely clear, the resulting reduction in violent crime in the country speaks for itself.It is important to recognize that the root causes of Central America’s epidemic of drug- and gang-violence are related to larger issues, such as uneven economic opportunities within these countries and between the United States and its southern neighbors. These require institutional changes that are characteristically slow moving.

But methods to reduce violence and protect human security must be expanded in the interim, and the model being used in El Salvador is working toward that end.

The US – and gang-plagued Mexico – should heed the progress made in El Salvador and recognize that the standard methods to end violence aren’t working. Creative, innovative solutions are needed. This Salvadoran example is one that should be tried, showing  that everyone from the community to local elected officials to law enforcement needs to be bought in to truly end violence on a large scale. 

The truce established in El Salvador may be unusual, but it is most certainly benefiting the people of that nation, and may serve as an interim solution to a very real and dangerous epidemic.  

Rep. Mike Honda, who served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, represents Silicon Valley and is a member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees. Dr. Ami Carpenter is an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at University of San Diego.


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