El Salvador's first 'murder free' day in three years: The first of many?

The Salvadorian government allegedly made a truce with gang leaders. Giving criminals impunity for reduced violence may weaken the legitimacy of the state, but it's saving lives, writes a blogger.

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

Last Saturday, El Salvador had its first murder free day in three years. It was symbolically important for one of the most violent countries on earth, but it also wasn't much of an outlier this month.
 Murders are down about 50 percent since the unannounced truce took hold in early March. Initial official statistics say there were 411 murders in January, 402 in February, and 230 in March. In the first 12 days of April, there were 70 murders. That's a huge decline. It's fair to say that the first month of the truce resulted in about 200 fewer murders.
We can and should have academic, philosophical, and political discussions about this. What does it mean for society to negotiate with gangs and organized crime? What did the government give in exchange? Shouldn't the government be more transparent about the negotiations? What are the tradeoffs? Is it sustainable over the long term?

I'm someone who would have been very hesitant to consider negotiations with gangs, particularly with the concessions that the Salvadoran government has allegedly made to gang leaders (though they deny it). I don't think it's sustainable. I do think that the tradeoffs of giving criminals impunity for reduced violence weakens the position and legitimacy of the state in some way. I do think this gives the gangs power in the sense that they can threaten the government with resuming violence at any time.
However, it's hard to argue with the results. It's really tough to argue that it would have been better for 200 more people to die than for the government to have given up whatever it did in the negotiations with the gangs.
We're no longer engaged in a philosophical exercise of what might be the merits and drawbacks of negotiating with the gangs. El Salvador has half the murder rate it did a month ago. Given the violence in that country, it's a result that would be considered a success under nearly any circumstances. It's a result that the US and other donor countries were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to achieve through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other security initiatives and would have proclaimed a giant victory if it had happened under their strategy. It's a result that is tough to lose in exchange for a different policy.

One side of this debate now has real results. No matter how you look at it, it's a game changer.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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