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.
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The CIP report and the claims of the intelligence agent suggest that negotiations are still in a sort of trial period this month, as the transfers have only one purpose: to bring the most important leaders of the two main gangs to prisons where security measures are more lax, so it is easier for them to spread the message to other leaders in prison, which in turn will contact their gang cells to relay the message.Skip to next paragraph
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A source in the OIE confirmed all this to El Faro. The informant added that some officials have voiced concerns about the negotiations, with some believing that reports of the talks have leaked more than expected despite the fact that they began less than a month ago.
El Faro spoke with yet another intelligence agent about the matter, who admitted that the government has undertaken negotiations with gangs in order to lower homicides. However, the sources disagree on the nature of the exchange. Two contacts mentioned the delivery of $10,000 to the families of five Mara Salvatrucha leaders, while another source spoke of simpler benefits, such as more comfortable living arrangements for those who have been transferred.
The assertion that these negotiations are led by a secretary with ties to Minister of Justice and Security Munguia is surprising. Mungia has appeared to favor a return to the more hardline security policies of the past. Just last month, he suggested that the civil liberty guarantees in El Salvador’s legal system were too strong, and stated that he was prepared to lock up an additional 10,000 gang members if need be (link in Spanish).
If the allegations are true, it would suggest that El Salvador’s government has attempted a major shift in its anti-crime strategy, opting to negotiate with the “maras” instead of confronting them head on. This could be a positive sign for the future of citizen security in the country, as the iron fist strategy failed to rein in violence, and instead contributed to the expansion of the gangs.
However, if negotiations with just 30 gang leaders can bring about an immediate and drastic drop in homicides, this suggests that the gangs are responsible for a large percentage of murders in the country, as the government has claimed. It would also mean the gangs may be more hierarchically organized than previously thought. This would lend weight to claims that the gangs recently adopted a nationally-coordinated campaign against security forces, carrying out hits against members of the army and police. If this is all true, then in addition to threatening citizen security, these groups could pose a dire threat to El Salvador's institutions.
– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
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