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Can a gang truce in El Salvador open the door to lasting peace?

For years El Salvador battled gangs with prison sentences and an iron fist. But a gang truce brokered in March has lasted longer than anyone expected, with homicide rates plummeting.

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"We are the sons of the war," Mojica says. "After the peace agreement [in 1992] between the guerrillas and the government of our country, the streets were left filled with weapons, orphaned children, conditions of extreme poverty, disintegrated households."

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The rival gangs began a war of their own, one that rocketed the homicide rate to between 12 and 18 deaths per day in a country of 6 million people, and fundamentally altered the social fabric.

"We are not a little group of 100 or 200 people," Mojica says. "We are thousands upon thousands upon thousands.... We are a segment of society," he says, referring to El Salvador's some 64,000 gang members, according to Security Ministry statistics. "They can lock up some of us for some of the time, but they can't get rid of us."

Over the past two decades, a series of right-wing governments fought the gangs head-on. The left-leaning administration of President Mauricio Funes, who took office in 2009, also initially took a hard line, prompted in part by public outrage after members of the 18th Street gang set fire to a bus in June 2010, killing 17 people.

Mr. Funes subsequently deployed the military to take control of the country's prisons and proposed the 2010 law that made it illegal to be a gang member. El Salvador's run-down prisons – which lack the very basics including electricity and potable water – today hold some 26,000 people, though they were built for a capacity of 8,000. In Cojutepeque, more than 1,000 men, most of them abundantly tattooed members of the 18th Street gang, crowd into quarters constructed for 250.

Thirty percent of prisoners have not been formally sentenced, which illustrates problems endemic in El Salvador's justice system. Yet combating the gangs head-on, and jailing leaders, did little to stop homicides, which stood at 69 per 100,000 in 2011, according to the United Nations. The UN ranked El Salvador as one of the world's most violent nations not at war.

‘De-activating a bomb’

The Funes government initially distanced itself from the truce but has recently conceded it supported the negotiations. The quiet shift, relaxing the iron fist and supporting dialogue, came as a surprise to many after Funes named retired Gen. David Munguía Payés, a former defense minister, to head the Security Ministry late last year.

Most expected Munguía Payés to back a militarized approach to fighting the gangs. Instead, says former guerrilla fighter Mijango, the two men crafted a plan to initiate talks with gang leadership.

Embroiled in an armed conflict with rivals, and facing the prospect of fighting government forces as well, gang members were open to dialogue. "They have lived a war that has gone on and on," Mijango says. "War wears you out."

Among the gangs' primary demands – proposed by leaders and discussed among the rank and file – was a transfer from maximum-security prisons to lower-security facilities where family visits are permitted and rehabilitation programs, albeit minimal, are possible. Some 30 prisoners were moved from the Zacatecoluca high-security prison as part of the deal.

"We are like bomb deactivators," says Douglas Moreno, vice minister of security and former director of El Salvador's prison system, speaking of the truce. "You are going to deactivate a bomb, and still there are many people who don't trust it. They wonder when is this thing going to explode? Well, we have to run the risk."

Mr. Moreno says that of the gangs' demands – not all of which were made public – each pertained to rights guaranteed by the penitentiary law that had been unenforced or ignored. Historically, he says, gang members were subject to worse-than-usual treatment in Salvadoran prisons.

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