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Is El Salvador negotiating with criminal street gangs?

A deal with El Salvador's two biggest street gangs may signal a less militaristic security strategy, writes guest blogger Geoffrey Ramsey.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / March 16, 2012

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, The views expressed are the author's own.

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A new report by El Faro suggests that El Salvador's government may have struck a deal with its two largest street gangs to reduce violence, indicating that the country may be adopting a less militaristic security strategy.

El Salvador is facing a security crisis. Despite the introduction of hardline security policies in 2003 designed to minimize gang violence, the murder rate has nearly doubled, rising from 36 in that year to 70 per 100,000 in 2011. Since President Mauricio Funes took office in 2009, he has struggled to reduce violence.

Recently, he caused a stir by giving former members of the Salvadoran military prominent positions in his security cabinet. As InSight Crime has pointed out, this has led some to conclude that the government is returning to the heavy-handed (and failed) “mano dura” (iron fist) policies of the past. However, a new investigation (link in Spanish) co-authored by El Faro’s Oscar Martinez, Carlos Martinez, Sergio Arauz, and Efren Lemus, suggests that the government may have adopted a less combative approach to dealing with the powerful street gangs.

Last week, Salvadoran prison officials transferred around 30 imprisoned leaders (link in Spanish) of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 from maximum security institutions to prisons with more relaxed rules on visitors. Following that, cells of both gangs around the country were told to keep their violent activities to a minimum, according to El Faro's sources. El Faro spoke to one gang leader, who confirmed the story. As the authors write:

“El Muchacho” received a call on his cell phone on Friday morning. The call came from the prison in Ciudad Barrios and the voice on the telephone explained the new policies of the MS-13: jailed leaders had decided that the gang needed to “calm down,” which in the group’s slang is the same as saying that killings and new extortion attempts would be prohibited until further notice.

El Muchacho is an individual with whom we had scheduled an interview in a San Salvador shopping mall. He is a boss, or “palabrero,” of a local MS-13 “clica” (band). Orders that come from prison are non-negotiable, so he called up his crew and relayed the message. “We’re on vacation,” he joked.


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