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.
(Page 3 of 3)
Yet the closed-door nature of the truce talks and the government's shifting position raise concerns about transparency.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Latin America's fight against drugs and violence
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"This process has generated a lot of uncertainty due to the lack of transparency in how information ... has been managed," says Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University in San Salvador. "It's been opaque."
Still, Ms. Aguilar says, "it's a golden opportunity for the country to advance."
Moving toward hope
Adam Blackwell, secretary of multidimensional security for the Organization of American States, says he has made eight trips to El Salvador since truce talks began. At El Salvador's request, the OAS entered the process as an observer, with Mr. Blackwell spearheading the formation of a "technical committee" to see that the truce becomes a sustainable "peace process."
"We're trying to institutionalize this group on the one hand and move forward with a plan," Blackwell says, which entails bringing political parties on board, coalescing the support of public opinion, and building bridges with the private sector, civil society, and religious groups.
Observers say the government must take advantage of the relative peace and move forward with economic and social programs to treat the roots of the gang problem: marginalization, poor education, and a lack of economic opportunity.
Homicides have dropped since the truce, but extortion, theft, and drug abuse remain intractable. Though obstacles remain, Blackwell says, "society is starting to move from being very skeptical to being hopeful."
'It's another reality'
Despite its entrenched problems, El Salvador has an advantage in the process of pacifying its violent gangs that its Central American neighbors do not: The country has so far avoided an influx of the region's most powerful drug cartels.
The crucial difference between El Salvador's gangs and Mexican cartels, such as the Zetas, is money. While the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are involved in drug dealing locally, neither operates in the multibillion-dollar business that is international drug trafficking.
Nor do they possess the military-grade firepower of drug-trafficking groups. In El Salvador, "you don't come across a gangster with five bulletproof trucks and armed men – you just don't see it," Mijango says. "You see a bunch of kids trying to figure out how to make it. It's another reality."
Honduras and Guatemala are contending with extensions of the Salvadoran gangs in their own territory as well as infiltration by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. As trafficking routes shifted, first from the Caribbean to Mexico, then later into Central America, corruption has increased. As a result, while there is interest in the outcome of the truce, in places like Honduras the focus is on reforming the justice system.
"Instead of thinking about a pact with the maras, we should think about an alliance of authorities to combat organized crime and common criminality," says Omar Rivera, executive director of Civil Society Group, a coalition of civil organizations in Honduras. "Our greatest hope comes from a process of reform and a cleansing [of corruption in police forces]."
A new era
With his homeys –what the gang members call each other – looking on, Mojica speaks about a new era when gangs themselves could become part of the solution. "It's time to transform the nature of the gang," he says. "This is no longer a truce. The fundamental objective of this process is to achieve a definitive pacification."