Will El Salvador's new president try to salvage a crumbling gang truce?

It's unclear if he wants to. After two years of relative calm in El Salvador thanks to the controversial truce, President Sánchez Cerén takes the reins with homicides on the rise.

Esteban Felix/AP/File
A member of the Salvadoran National Police walks next to symbol of the 'Mara Salvatrucha' gang painted on a wall during an anti-gang operative in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 7, 2014.

In the more than two years since El Salvador’s two largest and deadliest street gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18 – agreed to a cease-fire, this small Central American country has never seen a weekend so violent.

It began May 23, just last weekend, on what gang members dubbed “Black Friday.” That morning, gunmen wearing road worker uniforms boarded a public bus and opened fire, killing six – including three law-enforcement officials who were likely the targets. By Monday, it became a wave of murders, which also included six boat repairmen, and the body count had grown to 81.

Today, newly elected President Salvador Sánchez Cerén takes office, inheriting a disintegrating gang truce and  heightened uncertainty as to whether El Salvador can find a strategy to contain the gang violence that has hindered investment, terrorized citizens, and now, experts say, appears to be directed at the state itself.

“The incoming government does not have the luxury of just looking away,” says Héctor Silva, a Salvadoran author and a research fellow at American University. “They have to deal with this.”

Violent 'statements'

El Salvador’s gang truce was forged in March 2012 through secret negotiations among imprisoned gang leaders, a bishop, and a former guerrilla. Immediately, homicides in this small Central American country began dropping, from 14 a day in early 2012 to between 5 and 6 daily for about year after.

But the terms of the pact were murky from the start. The outgoing government of Mauricio Funes denied any role, but the government quickly allowed for key gang leaders to be moved to lower security prisons. The truce proved unpopular among residents of gang-controlled areas, who continued to suffer threats and extortion, but little police presence. During this year’s divisive presidential election, it became a wedge issue, and homicides began climbing.

Some believe the truce empowered gangs to bully the state with the specter of renewed violence. The bus killings and recent attacks on police fit that description: Not since the country’s 1980-92 civil war has Mr. Silva seen bodies lined up by a bus on a major highway, he says.

“Machine-gunning a police station is not a random act, nor is machine-gunning a bus,” Silva says. These are clear “statements.”

President Sánchez Cerén, a top guerrilla commander during the war, was vice-president during the truce talks. Yet, throughout the presidential campaign he was vague about whether he would attempt to bolster the agreement or let it founder.

Since the election, Sánchez Cerén, of the leftwing Farabundo Martí  National Liberation Front, or FMLN, has said even less – even as May turned into the bloodiest month in recent memory, reaching pre-truce levels of 14 killings daily. El Salvador has seen nearly 400 more homicides during the first four months of 2014 than in same period last year. Much of the violence is attributed to a turf war between two factions of the Barrio 18 gang.

'Confronting the state'?

Paolo Luers, a columnist for a San Salvador-based newspaper who also serves as spokesman for the truce’s negotiators, blames the spike in murders on the outgoing government and its security minister, who withdrew support for the truce when it became politically untenable in the lead-up to the presidential election. The administration stopped allowing negotiators into prisons, Mr. Luers says, and impeded jailed gang leaders from communicating truce updates to one another and with members outside. Police were rounding up gangsters who’d been part of the truce process and jailing them, he alleges. 

“What’s in crisis is the government’s relationship with the truce,” Luers says.

The gangs remain committed to the pact, he says, and it has not come undone – not yet, at least.

“If the next government comes in with the same attitude,” he says, “they could lose everything at any moment. And that doesn’t mean that the gangs are going to return to killing each other. That means they are going to confront the state,” Luers says.

Catholic priest Antonio Rodriguez, who runs programs for former gang members in Mejicanos, a working-class neighborhood on the north side of this city, calls the truce “broken.”

“People feel more insecure than two or three years ago,” says Mr. Rodriguez, who goes by Padre Toño. “Because now the gangs have more control.”

The gangs’ recent victims include a teacher whose body was dismembered, a young police officer killed in an ambush, and a street vendor murdered for crossing a gang boundary. The vendor’s five-year-old son, one of 11 siblings, was captured in photos carrying his father’s cream-colored rubber boots to a river and washing away the bloodstains.

“Every day here is Black Friday,” Rodriguez says.

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