In fighting gangs, US should look to El Salvador

In combating the MS-13 gang, the Obama administration should look to El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. A negotiated 'truce' with gangs is possible in the US and Mexico.

Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters/file
Victor Garcia, from Calle-18 gang, sits with his wife and daughter during a religious service at a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador June 16, 2012. Mr. Garcia, along with members of the rival MS-13 gang, entered an unprecedented, negotiated truce that authorities say has greatly reduced the homicide rate.

In October, the US Treasury named the notorious MS-13 gang a transnational criminal organization. This unprecedented action aims to sanction the violent American-born street gang and seize its estimated millions in assets – profits gained through drug and human trafficking.

But the Obama administration should take a cue from El Salvador, which has adopted a far less confrontational approach to gangs, and is seeing a drop in gang violence as a result. Both of us have worked and traveled extensively in Central America – El Salvador in particular, which has its own MS-13.

In the United States, the MS-13 is made up of about 10,000 members, largely Salvadoran-Americans or Salvadoran nationals who fled El Salvador’s civil war. The US gang is part of a transnational criminal network of drugs, weapons, and violent gang culture.

In Central America, gang warfare has given way to a complex network of organized, violent crime and in many places has taken on characteristics of a “traditional” war. Measuring the intensity of violence in terms of homicides, the so-called "northern triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is now considered the most violent region in the world (aside from battlefields), averaging tens of thousands of gang-related deaths annually. The need for suitable civilian protection is obvious.

The legal framework for civilian protection is international humanitarian law, which binds state and nonstate actors to rules meant to protect civilians in armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has argued that international humanitarian law is applicable when any “war” amounts to armed conflict, defined by a certain intensity of violence: 25 to 1,000 war-related deaths per year and a sophisticated enough command structure that armed groups are actually able to implement such law. Clearly, the homicide figures in Central America far exceed the benchmarks for war-related deaths per year.

Earlier this year, in an effort to curb the violence, the government in El Salvador negotiated a groundbreaking deal with the Salvadoran MS-13 and a rival gang, Calle-18. In a bold move, mediators in El Salvador essentially extended the framework of humanitarian engagement to gang warfare, brokering a peace treaty between the two gangs and the Salvadoran government. After the deal, homicides decreased by 32 percent and kidnappings by 50 percent, as reported by The New York Times. In May, the gangs extended their truce to school zones and agreed to end forced recruitment of child soldiers. 

The nine-month old ceasefire suggests that (at least in some countries) MS-13 and Calle-18 are highly structured enough to enforce humanitarian commitments throughout their far flung cells. The Organization of American States is monitoring the truce, lauded by its secretary general for stemming violence. Appeals from both gangs for the same multi-track diplomacy have now spread to Guatemala and Honduras.

The MS-13 and Calle-18 gangs, comprised of roughly 70,000 members throughout a number of countries, had been attempting for several years to engage the Salvadoran government in a dialogue to these ends but previous administrations were not inclined to negotiate with the criminal networks. As the Red Cross has pointed out, governments aren’t quick to accept the principle of equality enshrined in international humanitarian law, which treats transnational criminal networks as equal in status to the governments fighting them.

Thus, following the same logic as the argument against talking to terrorists, Guatemala and Honduras have both rejected the viability of humanitarian engagement with MS-13 and Calle-18. Critics argue that the Salvadoran agreement is paramount to negotiating with terrorists and suspect that the gangs may use humanitarian commitments as bargaining chips to get, change, or otherwise influence their standing.

And indeed, MS-13 and Calle-18 leaders are asking for changes: affirmative action programs, governmental and public involvement for community policing, and the creation of economic opportunities. But the Salvadoran government is asking for significant changes too: for gang members to relinquish all weapons, commit no more crimes, and reveal the locations of mass graves where allegedly hundreds of gang victims are buried.

While the terms of the agreement aren’t entirely clear, the resulting reduction in violent crime in the country speaks for itself.It is important to recognize that the root causes of Central America’s epidemic of drug- and gang-violence are related to larger issues, such as uneven economic opportunities within these countries and between the United States and its southern neighbors. These require institutional changes that are characteristically slow moving.

But methods to reduce violence and protect human security must be expanded in the interim, and the model being used in El Salvador is working toward that end.

The US – and gang-plagued Mexico – should heed the progress made in El Salvador and recognize that the standard methods to end violence aren’t working. Creative, innovative solutions are needed. This Salvadoran example is one that should be tried, showing  that everyone from the community to local elected officials to law enforcement needs to be bought in to truly end violence on a large scale. 

The truce established in El Salvador may be unusual, but it is most certainly benefiting the people of that nation, and may serve as an interim solution to a very real and dangerous epidemic.  

Rep. Mike Honda, who served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, represents Silicon Valley and is a member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees. Dr. Ami Carpenter is an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at University of San Diego.

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