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.

Luis Romero/AP
Incarcerated 18th Street gang members in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador. The US just labeled a rival Salvadoran gang, MS-13, a transnational criminal organization.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters
A soldier uses a torch to destroy a pistol turned in by Salvadoran gangsters.

The streets of this city's toughest barrios are quieter than they have been in years – a disquieting tranquility, residents say, because it has come from a truce no one believed possible between two of the country's most violent rival gangs. It is a pact no one can be sure will last, yet hopes are growing.

For more than a decade El Salvador has approached the violence resulting from warring gangs 18th Street and the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) with jail time. But prison populations swelled, and the violence didn't abate. Faced with one of the world's highest homicide rates, El Salvador recently took a new and politically risky approach to the violence, bringing gang members and civil society – tacitly backed by the government – to the negotiating table.

A gang truce brokered in March has entered its eighth month, lasting longer than anyone expected. Homicide rates are down to five from more than 14 daily prior to the truce, and now the government is exploring ways to bring it more permanence, involving more stakeholders and approaching it as a "peace process" that will include initiatives addressing the economic and social roots of the problem.

"Our conclusion is that the crime is only an expression of a much deeper social problem," says Raul Mijango, who, as a respected former legislative deputy and ex-guerrilla who fought El Salvador's military regime during the civil war, helped broker the deal.

As the truce in El Salvador takes shape, the United States recently shone new attention on Salvadoran gangs, designating the MS-13 a transnational criminal organization. While some analysts argue that imposing financial sanctions on the gang, which has connections in the US and Central America, could have more to do with fighting them domestically, others see it as a potential blow to the peace process. El Salvador would no longer be engaging with street gangs, but international organized crime. El Salvador's president called the label "exaggerated."

Now, all eyes are on El Salvador; and neighboring countries that also face high rates of violent crime, such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, are watching to see if the delicate truce will either unravel or set a precedent for approaches to curbing gang and drug violence across the region.

'Sons of war'

Carlos Mojica sits in a white plastic chair, flanked by a half dozen other heavily tattooed men, in an unused classroom inside the Cojutepeque prison. His sleeveless jersey reveals a canvas of tattoos, including 18s on his left forearm and his neck, and a crinkled scar on his right bicep where he was shot. The words "In Memory of My Mother" curl across his forehead.

Mr. Mojica took part in the talks that led to the truce along with an MS-13 leader, Borromeo Henríquez, and other gang members, in a series of meetings mediated by Mr. Mijango and Msgr. Fabio Colindres, head chaplain of the military and national civil police.

Mojica, now in his 50s, joined the 18th Street gang as an immigrant in Los Angeles in the 1980s and served prison time in California before being deported, along with an untold number of other members of the mara gangs, back to El Salvador in the mid-1990s. The 18th Street and MS-13 gangs, which began on the streets of Los Angeles and have since spread in small bands – called clicas, or cliques, of between two dozen and 100 members – to cities on the East Coast, reconsolidated in their home country as it emerged from 12 years of civil war.

"We are the sons of the war," Mojica says. "After the peace agreement [in 1992] between the guerrillas and the government of our country, the streets were left filled with weapons, orphaned children, conditions of extreme poverty, disintegrated households."

The rival gangs began a war of their own, one that rocketed the homicide rate to between 12 and 18 deaths per day in a country of 6 million people, and fundamentally altered the social fabric.

"We are not a little group of 100 or 200 people," Mojica says. "We are thousands upon thousands upon thousands.... We are a segment of society," he says, referring to El Salvador's some 64,000 gang members, according to Security Ministry statistics. "They can lock up some of us for some of the time, but they can't get rid of us."

Over the past two decades, a series of right-wing governments fought the gangs head-on. The left-leaning administration of President Mauricio Funes, who took office in 2009, also initially took a hard line, prompted in part by public outrage after members of the 18th Street gang set fire to a bus in June 2010, killing 17 people.

Mr. Funes subsequently deployed the military to take control of the country's prisons and proposed the 2010 law that made it illegal to be a gang member. El Salvador's run-down prisons – which lack the very basics including electricity and potable water – today hold some 26,000 people, though they were built for a capacity of 8,000. In Cojutepeque, more than 1,000 men, most of them abundantly tattooed members of the 18th Street gang, crowd into quarters constructed for 250.

Thirty percent of prisoners have not been formally sentenced, which illustrates problems endemic in El Salvador's justice system. Yet combating the gangs head-on, and jailing leaders, did little to stop homicides, which stood at 69 per 100,000 in 2011, according to the United Nations. The UN ranked El Salvador as one of the world's most violent nations not at war.

‘De-activating a bomb’

The Funes government initially distanced itself from the truce but has recently conceded it supported the negotiations. The quiet shift, relaxing the iron fist and supporting dialogue, came as a surprise to many after Funes named retired Gen. David Munguía Payés, a former defense minister, to head the Security Ministry late last year.

Most expected Munguía Payés to back a militarized approach to fighting the gangs. Instead, says former guerrilla fighter Mijango, the two men crafted a plan to initiate talks with gang leadership.

Embroiled in an armed conflict with rivals, and facing the prospect of fighting government forces as well, gang members were open to dialogue. "They have lived a war that has gone on and on," Mijango says. "War wears you out."

Among the gangs' primary demands – proposed by leaders and discussed among the rank and file – was a transfer from maximum-security prisons to lower-security facilities where family visits are permitted and rehabilitation programs, albeit minimal, are possible. Some 30 prisoners were moved from the Zacatecoluca high-security prison as part of the deal.

"We are like bomb deactivators," says Douglas Moreno, vice minister of security and former director of El Salvador's prison system, speaking of the truce. "You are going to deactivate a bomb, and still there are many people who don't trust it. They wonder when is this thing going to explode? Well, we have to run the risk."

Mr. Moreno says that of the gangs' demands – not all of which were made public – each pertained to rights guaranteed by the penitentiary law that had been unenforced or ignored. Historically, he says, gang members were subject to worse-than-usual treatment in Salvadoran prisons.

RELATED: Who are the 'Maras?'

Yet the closed-door nature of the truce talks and the government's shifting position raise concerns about transparency.

"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."

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