Ending gang violence and creating peace: Colombia's lessons for El Salvador

A truce between El Salvador's rival gangs this year is off to a good start, but it's worth looking at lessons from Colombia, which created a program to demobilize paramilitaries a decade ago.

Luis Romero/AP
A gang member gestures during a visit of members of The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador to the prison of Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, Sunday, July 22.

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Hannah Stone's research here.

As the El Salvadoran gang truce offers hope that it could tranform into something more lasting, InSight Crime looks at the lessons from Colombia’s peace process a decade earlier with paramilitary army the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

On March 12, Salvadoran media reported that the country had experienced its most peaceful 24 hours in the last three years with only two murders, compared to the daily average of 13. The trend continued over the next few days, with violence at exceptionally low levels in a country which has become one of the world’s most dangerous. Soon, investigative site El Faro reported that the government had offered concessions to jailed gang members in exchange for a reduction in violence and within days the church stepped forward to say it had brokered a truce between rival gangs the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. From the outset, the government was quick to deny it was involved in any way. However, with the security gains from the truce now having lasted for four months, and murders down about 60 percent from pre-truce levels, the government is looking to turn the truce into a lasting peace deal.

The gang leaders have met with the Organization of American States head Jose Miguel Insulza, presented a list of their demands, and even put the question of disarmament on the table, handing over a “symbolic” delivery of weapons. The government has responded, with President Mauricio Funes declaring that “the truce has created a different scenario that allows the government to consider a national agreement.” Neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, impressed by the solid drop in violence, have expressed interest in putting a similar model into place to tackle their own gang violence. It is starting to seem possible that the truce will turn into a lasting peace.

At this delicate moment for El Salvador, it is worth looking at the lessons offered by Colombia, which set out on its own program to demobilize the paramilitary armies nearly 10 years ago.

Peace with the Paramilitaries

In December 2002, four months after Alvaro Uribe became president of Colombia, the AUC declared a unilateral ceasefire. The roots of the organization were in groups formed in the 1980s to protect landowners from guerrillas, but over the next two decades it morphed into a drug trafficking federation responsible for massacres and systematic human rights abuses. In July 2003 the government and the AUC announced an agreement to carry out a full demobilization of all paramilitary forces by 2006. More than 31,000 supposed combatants went through demobilization ceremonies, handing over weapons and equipment, and many joined government programs to reintegrate them back into society. The AUC is no longer a force in Colombia; its top leaders are dead or imprisoned, many of them in the US.

The country has been more peaceful since then. Murder statistics from the Colombian police, quoted by the·United Nations, show a sharp drop in the national murder rate at the time that negotiations began. From 1995 to 2002 the rate varied between 60 and 71 per 100,000 – one of the highest in the world. In 2003 it dropped to 56, and has kept steadily falling, down to the low thirties today. One 2007 paper found a 13 percent drop in killings, on average, in areas where the paramilitaries had demobilized, and calculated that up to 2,800 deaths had been averted by the peace process. The improved security situation is of course due to many factors, particularly the government’s assault on the guerrilla groups, but the paramilitary demobilization played its part. At the very least, it cut the large scale massacres which were a trademark of the AUC.

The impact of the Salvadoran gang truce could be far greater than that of Colombia’s demobilization. Since the truce began four months ago, murders have dropped from 13 a day to around five, meaning that nearly 1,000 lives have already been saved – and this in a country with a sixth of the population Colombia had at the time of the paramilitary peace process.

In both cases, there is the potential of taking out the biggest contributors to violence. In El Salvador, the government had accused gangs of being responsible for 90 percent of murders in the country – a claim that has been criticized, but which began to seem more plausible after murders dropped 60 percent on the say-so of their leaders. Likewise the AUC is estimated to have been the single biggest contributor to violence in Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A Cautionary Tale

More can be learned from the shortcomings of Colombia’s peace process than its limited successes. Colombia’s demobilization is widely considered to have been a failure, with a large number of combatants joining paramilitary successor groups or drug cartels which took over many of the old criminal structures of the AUC. The government insists on calling these “criminal groups” (BACRIM) and asserting that they have no relation to the paramilitaries, though many of their leaders were mid-level commanders in the AUC. They have taken over many of the same criminal activities, using the same networks, and carry out attacks on civilians in areas they control.

As a 2010 Human Rights Watch report sets out, the rise of the BACRIM was in large part due to the failures of Colombia’s demobilization process to “dismantle the AUC’s criminal networks and financial and political support structures.”

Salvadoran maras do not have anything like the same kind of political and financial networks as the paramilitaries, and do not engage in organized crime on the same level. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 have evolved over the last decade from their beginnings as neighborhood gangs only loosely connected on the national level, but they remain street gangs which get the majority of their funding from extortion. They are involved in the drug trade as street-level vendors, and do not usually control the wholesale distribution of the product, much less deal with international trafficking organizations.

However, their networks go deep into the communities where they are located. In many areas they exert social control, substituting for the government, charging “taxes” to street vendors and preventing rivals from entering. It will be important for the Salvadoran government to break this hold, and bring state presence to areas the gangs currently control. If this is not done, then new criminal structures will rise to take the place of the maras, should they demobilize. Human Rights Watch said that the Colombian government failed to take advantage of the demobilization process to “thoroughly question demobilizing paramilitaries about their knowledge of the groups’ assets, contacts, and criminal operations, to investigate the groups’ criminal networks and sources of support, and to take them apart.” Salvadoran authorities should take note, and use the opportunity to push for a dismantling of the gangs’ extortion and other criminal networks.

The Colombian demobilization process also failed to bring AUC members to justice for even the most serious crimes. The agreement was that the rank and file would go free, while those convicted of serious human rights abuses would get a maximum of eight years in prison, in exchange for compensating their victims and giving testimony about their actions. So far, seven years since the Justice and Peace law meant to govern the process was implemented, there have been only seven convictions. Most of the top AUC leaders are now serving far longer sentences, after being extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, but this means that many have ceased to cooperate with Colombian justice.

If Salvador moves towards a full peace process, the government should ensure that those gang members responsible for serious abuses are brought to justice. As Crisis Group pointed out at the beginning of the Colombian peace process, “It would be disastrous to allow the men with guns to believe that they could engage in terrible brutalities today and be pardoned tomorrow.” It has indeed proved disastrous, with members of one BACRIM, known as the ERPAC, being allowed to “demobilize” last year, despite the fact that their group is itself a successor to the paramilitaries. While every peace process has to strike a balance between peace (ending the conflict) and justice (making sure the guilty are punished), allowing impunity for serious crimes will not ensure lasting peace.

Two Conflicts

The differences between Salvador’s “maras” and Colombia’s paramilitaries are of course enormous. The AUC was a party to an ongoing civil conflict which involved other actors, including the guerrilla groups who are still fighting today. It had deep ties to the political and military establishment, which the maras do not, and carried out brutal acts and massacres on a far greater scale. Meanwhile El Salvador presents its own distinct set of problems, including historical enmity between the two gangs that are party to the truce.

Indeed, the effect of a peace deal in El Salvador could be the reverse of that in Colombia. Through the demobilization process, Colombia’s paramilitaries shed much of their ideological posturing and morphed into the BACRIM, who have dropped the political rhetoric and exert less social control in their territory, focusing instead on drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, and extortion. According to analyst Douglas Farah, who has been interviewing jailed gang members in Salvador since the truce was declared, the "pandilleros" (gang members) are readying themselves for a shift into politics. In an report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he predicted that the result of the truce “is likely to be a short-term drop in activity as gangs morph into political actors,” and reported that gang members are already putting plans into place to back political candidates in exchange for protection and control of their policies.

In Colombia, though the AUC is gone, the drug trade continues unabated. In El Salvador, even if every member of the gangs demobilizes, the factors that cause young people to join gangs, like social exclusion and unemployment, will remain.

–  Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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