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 , Guest blogger

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

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.

The clica led by this 30-something had to suspend some plans immediately. According to El Muchacho, the orders caused them to put off two hits they had planned for that very same day. The only reason the gangster obeys orders like this is his utter fear of the Mara Salvatrucha’s punishment system. If a subordinate disobeys, he will be punished with anything from a severe beating to death. If El Muchaho defied his orders, both he and his boss in the Ciudad Barrios prison would be punished.

By way of comparison, El Muchacho gave the following example: “If your boss tells you ‘find this report,’ you have to go rummaging for it, because your job depends on it. It’s the same. An order’s an order.”

The explanation he was given for these orders was that a group of imprisoned gang bosses in a maximum security facility in Zacatecoluca had been transferred to other facilities, and the new orders were given so that they would stay there. What he heard was this: there had been a negotiation between some mara leaders and the government, and as long as the gangs kept things calm the government wouldn’t have any motivation to return them to Zacatecoluca.

The negotiations, if they indeed happened, have apparently worked. There has been a significant drop in homicides of late, with March 12 being the least violent day the country has seen in three years, with only two killings registered (link in Spanish). The average for the first few weeks of this year was 13 a day. Although police claim that this recent improvement is due to “improved coordination and intelligence,” (link in Spanish) law enforcement and intelligence sources told El Faro a different story, and even mentioned a financial incentive for the drop in homicides.

The first news of the transfer came to this newspaper on Friday, April 9. It came in the form of a few lines from a report generated by the Police Intelligence Center (CIP). It claimed that the "green," referring to the military, had moved all the "junk" of the Mara Salvatrucha. "The information is confirmed," concluded the extract, which also spoke of thousands of dollars offered to the highest-ranking gang members if homicides fell this month.

That same day, an intelligence agent claimed that, according to officials who were closely involved, this strategy was led by Colonel Simon Molina Montoya, who served as an intelligence adviser to the current Security and Justice Minister, David Munguia Payes, when the latter was minister of defense. Currently, Molina Montoya is the second-in-command of the State Intelligence Agency (OIE).

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Montoya Molina said simply: "Sorry, I know nothing." El Faro attempted to interview General Munguia Payes on Tuesday to discuss the transfer of prisoners, but there was no response. This Wednesday the minister’s phone was called repeatedly, but none of our calls were returned. When El Faro called a ministry press official, the periodical relayed the contents of the article and asked for a response from the authorities. This official told El Faro that they had passed on the request to the minister, but that he still had no comment.

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.

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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