El Salvador: Why Catholic Church backs a gang truce that government rejects

The church's call for support is giving some hope that this truce can bring a more permanent peace to El Salvador. Already homicides have nearly halved. But the government says it refuses to negotiate with criminal groups.

A member of the 18th Street gang is presented to the media after being arrested on the outskirts of El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, in January. The Catholic Church in the country announced this week that it is openly engaging in talks with gang members, raising hopes of renewed peace.

El Salvador's Catholic Church announced this week that it is openly engaging in talks with gang members, raising hopes that a new truce reached by gang leaders last month will have the support it needs to curb violence in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

“Dialogue should be open to everyone and everyone has to be an actor in this peace process,” said Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez after mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral Sunday. “No one can be excluded.” 

This is the first time the church has come out in full support of starting a dialogue with the gangs. While one bishop was heavily involved in the 2012-14 gang truce facilitated by the government, the church was divided on its involvement and eventually denounced the truce. Their latest call for support is giving some here hope that this agreement can bring about a more tenable solution and lasting peace.

“In this equation, I think they're the only partner with enough credibility to make it happen,” says Héctor Silva, a Salvadoran author and research fellow at American University. “They have the authority and the good will to engage honestly in the pursuit of a real solution.”

The seeds of such a solution may already be in place. On Jan. 17, El Salvador’s biggest gangs – including MS-13 and Barrio 18 – reached a “unilateral” truce, without government brokering.

Murder rates immediately dropped by almost half, averaging 7.6 a day between Jan. 18 and Jan. 29 compared to 14.1 per day for the first two weeks of 2015.

“You can’t keep ignoring the gangs as they can be an important part of the solution,” said gang leaders in their joint statement on the truce.

'Without fear of consequences'

The left-wing FMLN government, however, is holding firm to its official position that it “does not negotiate with any criminal groups.”

In early January, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén said gang members “are outside the law, they are lawbreakers, and so our duty is to pursue them and punish them.”

The government has since approved a new policy that allows police to shoot gang members “without fear of consequences.”

In part, this hardline stance comes in response to the high murder toll at the beginning of the year, which included seven policemen.

But congressional and municipal elections, scheduled for March 1, are also influencing the government’s tough approach, and possibly the gang’s new truce, says Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, a website that tracks organized crime in Latin America.

“The initial reaction to the gang truce is: this is political expediency,” says Mr. Dudley. “Let’s hope there’s something more there. And the church’s involvement is perhaps an indication that there may be something more there.”

Talk vs. Negotiation

Experts agree that it won’t be clear until after the elections how far anyone is willing to go in this peace process – including the church. Last Sunday, Bishop Rosa Chávez took pains to emphasize that these new talks with gang members are just that, talks.

“The word negotiation does not enter into our vocabulary, it absolutely does not enter. The word dialogue does,“ he said.

That word is enough to make a difference, says Jeanne Rikkers of FESPAD, a Salvadoran human rights organization. She says the truce will not be sustainable without government participation. But she thinks the church’s decision to embrace a discussion with gang members will influence how much support the government gives.

“It’s setting a new tone that this isn't a political issue; it’s a moral issue, it’s a social issue, it’s a human rights issue,” says Ms. Rikkers. “And for the church to play that role is very important.”

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