violence

Extrajudicial Killings in El Salvador

This week, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, David Morales, reported that police and military forces likely committed extrajudicial executions on at least two separate occasions last year. One was the March 2015 massacre at the San Blas Finca in which security forces killed at least eight alleged gang members. The other was an August 2015 massacre at Los Pajales in Panchimalco in which security forces killed five alleged gang members.

The Ombudsman announced that, “in both cases we concluded that there were extrajudicial executions.” They reached their findings based on evidence that police moved bodies to make the scene appear like a shootout. In addition, some of the bodies showed signs of being beaten prior to being shot. Of the 13 killed in these two incidents, 4 were minors under the age of 18.

The Ombudsman also said that his office is reviewing 30 other incidents involving 100 deaths that they suspect to be cases of extrajudicial killings.

The allegations are not new. Experts have long suspected f that many of the shootouts reported in the papers are actually extrajudicial killings committed by police and military. Because the victims are reported to be gang members, few citizens or government officials ask questions or demand more information.

The Ombudsman’s announcement comes just over a year after President Sánchez Cerén’s administration said publicly that the police should use their weapons in defending against gangs without fearing that they will “suffer consequences.”

The question of extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members goes beyond on-duty police and military forces. In January 2016, the Ombudsman for Human Rights said, “in this country we see that there exists a pattern of violence concerning death squads. According to our observations as the Ombudsman’s Office, I presume the existence of these groups, it is very likely that they are in operation.” Just in the past year and a half, extermination groups have taken to social media to claim responsibility for many homicides of alleged gang members, but they are not investigated and the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.

As the Ombudsman announces their findings of extrajudicial killings, the government is doubling down on the use of force to combat gangs. The government recently deployed a special combat force to attack gangs in rural areas. It is comprised of 600 elite military soldiers and 400 members of the police, and will start by focusing on hard to reach rural areas where they believe that gangs are operating. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said, “This is a firm action that says to the gangs that the State is stronger.”

In addition, last week the Legislative Assembly passed reforms to the Penal Code and other laws making it illegal to provide aid to or act as a intermediary for gangs. It also makes it a crime for government officials to agree not to prosecute gangs or in any way negotiate with gang members. The penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is up to 15 years in prison. Raul Mejango said the reforms “burn all boats that could somehow afford to find other solutions to this problem [of violence], betting solely on repression as the solution, and historically this has proven not to resolve the problem.”

What is especially terrible about extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, use of Special Forces, and the new laws is that repression and force this is the only approach the government is taking to addressing insecurity in El Salvador. Salvadorans need more. El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and instead of moving towards long-term solutions, or even identifying the roots of the violence, the government is responding with even more violence and more repression.

The gang issue is complicated, and the violence and extortion perpetrated by these groups destroy communities around the country. Voices on the Border staff has seen this first hand. But reverting to wartime tactics will only lead to more violence and more violence. Gangs exist, at least in part, because there is a void created by socio-economic and political inequalities. Even if a militarized solution led to the destruction of the gangs, something else less than positive would take their place. And even in war, extrajudicial killings like those being reported by the Ombudsman for Human Rights would be a war crime and should be punished.

violence

Israel Quintanilla, President of ALGES, and his son Alberto Zavala Found Dead

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Voices on the Border is sad to report that officials have found the bodies Mr. Ismael Quintanilla, the President of the Salvadoran Association of War Wounded (ALGES) and his son Alberto Zavala. They were disappeared Friday Afternoon, and their bodies found Monday.

ALGES, has been a historic partner of Voices on the Border and this tragic news causes us great sadness. We express our solidarity with the family and ALGES.

We also express our great concern for the growing violence in El Salvador, and the danger that citizens and social organizations experience daily.

Voices on the Border testifies to Mr. Quintanilla and ALGES’s tireless and courageous work over the decades, advocating for the rights of all people with disabilities from El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Their work has put ALGES leaders at great risk over the years.

We would like to rule out that Mr. Quintanilla and his son were killed for the political advocacy work that ALGES has been involved in over the years, and demand that the Salvadoran Government take immediate action to find those responsible for their deaths.

Economy, Environment, Tourism, violence

Abuses in Textile Maquilas and Hotels

Last Friday we posted that Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing more neoliberal economic policies in order to create jobs and thereby address the emigration crisis and high levels of violence. Their plan, in part, is to attract more textile maquilas, agro-industries, manufacturing, and tourism. We think it’s a bad idea and will result in even greater inequalities and more emigration.

Over the past couple of days we came across a couple new articles that demonstrate why more sub-poverty minimum wage jobs in textiles, manufacturing, and tourism won’t address the serious issues that El Salvador and other Northern Triangle face.

Gangs and Maquilas

On Monday, the Inter Press Service (IPS) reported that employees of LD El Salvador, a Korean textile maquila that operates in San Marcos, just south of San Salvador, is using gangs and death threats to break up an employee union. One employee told IPS “They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker.” Another employee says, “they told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company.”

These are probably not empty threats. In January 2014 Juan Carlos Sánchez Luna, a member of SITS from the LD El Salvador maquila was assassinated. He began receiving threats at the end of 2013 after he participated in a press conference denouncing threats made against organizers at the LD El Salvador maquila. Less than a month later was gunned down in what officials classified as a “common crime.

Of the 780 employees at LD El Salvador, 155 used to belong to the Salvadoran Textile Industry Union (SITS, in Spanish). Since the threats began the number of union members has dropped to 60.

LD El Salvador is not the only company using gangs to prevent their workers from organizing. The IPS article references a report published in January 2015 by the Center for Global Worker’s Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium titled Unholy Alliances: How Employers in El Salvador’s Garment Industry Collude with a Corrupt Labor Federation, Company Unions, and Violent Gangs to Suppress Worker’s Rights. The report contains several accounts of maquilas using gangs to threaten and intimidate workers, and documents many other abuses.

As we pointed out last week, there is nothing in the Northern Alliance Plan that will protect workers rights and ensure that the very employers that are supposed to be part of the “solution” aren’t abusing workers and colluding with criminal organizations.

Tourism and Hotels

On Sunday, the Center for the Study and Support of Labor (CEAL, in Spanish) wrote an update on two hotels in Acajutla, Sonsonate. Both have long histories of abusing worker’s rights and the environment. The two hotels are the Vernaneros Hotel and Resort and the Decameron Salinas Hotel. Both tourism facilities have long histories of abusing workers rights and the environment.

Over the past several years, Vernaneros has faced several legal issues regarding the violations of El Salvador’s labor laws and the destruction of a valuable coral reef. In 2013, the Ministry of Labor found that Vernaneros owner Larry Alberto Zedán owed his workers $17,000 in compensation for not paying overtime, holidays, and overtime and other wages. Inspectors found that employees “worked most of the day, and in some cases 60 hours a week, but did not receive the minimum wage, did not have written contracts, and that [the hotel] operated informally with total disregard for labor standards.”

As a result of the abuses group of workers formed the Food, Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism Industry Union (SITIGHRA) with employees of The Decameron Hotel and other facilities. After they formed the union representatives wrote to the owners of several hotels and asked for a meeting. Larry Zedán responded by firing the 15 of his employees who had joined the union.

The Verdaderos has also received a lot of attention over the years for their destruction of a large reef off the coast from their resort. They destroyed the reef by installing a seawall to make their beach more pleasant for their guests. The reef, located in a region called Los Cóbanos, was the only place between Mexico and South America on the Pacific side, where coral grew.

The Decameron Hotel has its own share of labor disputes. In September 2013, the Decameron fired 145 workers for supporting the SITIGHR union, the same union that the Verdaderos employees had been fired for joining. One worker told Contrapunto in 2013 that they formed the union because “a lot of the bosses and supervisors treated us really poorly.”

These are just a couple of real examples in the news this week of what the globalized race to the bottom looks like. El Salvador needs solutions – economic inequality, emigration, and violence are all serious problems. But selling off the labor force and environment to the lowest bidder won’t resolve anything.

Related to these issues:

With regard to tourism, we came across a short peice on Cancun and what tourism development has done to local Mayan populations and environment. This is relevant for a lot of reasons, including that developers in El Salvador have proposed turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America. Here is a link:

Our friends at CISPES are hosting an event in the DC area this week – Estela Ramirez, the General Secretary of the Salvadoran garment workers’ will be in DC this week to talk about their work. This will be a good opportunity to hear from on-the-ground organizers.

violence, Voices Developments

Salvadoran Youth: Gangs and Immigration are only Part of the Story

Media coverage about youth in El Salvador often presents a pretty bleak picture. Youth, especially males, are portrayed as either belonging to the gangs alleged to be responsible for the country’s violence and insecurity, or as migrants leaving in droves for the United States.

Right now the media in El Salvador is focusing heavily on the gang truce and the assassination of Giovanni Morales, a 33 year-old rehabilitated gang member who worked with Padre Toño in Mejicanos, a Spanish priest who has been working with youth involved in gangs. Media has also been talking a lot about the growing link between MS-13 and the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.

These are very important issues that affect all Salvadorans, but focusing only on the violence or immigration presents a very skewed reality of Salvadoran youth.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are 1.27 million youth in El Salvador between the ages of 15 and 24, and there are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Salvadoran gang members. Even if all those involved in gangs fall between the ages of 15 and 24, they would still only account for between 1.2 and 1.6% of that demographic.Similarly, if El Salvador’s net rate of migration (-8.78 migrants/1,000 population) holds for those between the ages of 15-24, a total of 11,150 youth would have left the country in 2012. If these numbers are considered accurate, there are approximately 1.24 million youth who are neither involved in gangs nor migrating.

That does not mean that gangs and migration are not issues for these 1.24 million youth. It means that a lot of youth are making the most of being in El Salvador and finding more productive ways to channel their energy and talent.

For instance, in Northern Morazán, where Voices on the Border has worked since 1987, there is network of well-organized youth groups that are trying hard to improve conditions in their communities.

These groups, which are all non-profit and not affiliated with any political party, are comprised of youth between the ages of 13 and 30, with an equal ratio of male and female members. Most of the youth come from families with extremely limited economic resources, yet they share many commonalities with their peer age group from around the world. When possible, they like to attend school, play soccer, and hang out at the cyber (internet) café where they check Facebook and chat with friends. Most aspire to find work that will allow them to stay in their own communities. Some want to be artists, others want to be psychologists or doctors, and a few want to maintain their ancestral ties by farming like their parents and grandparents.

Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag
Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag

In Cacaopera, a rural indigenous community in the mountains of Morazán, youth formed the Youth Mission Social Organizations (OSMIJ, in Spanish). The 40 members of OSMIJ strive for integration and development within Cacaopera through community service. They are engaged in a variety of activities related to local, economic, social, and political issues. Last month, for example, the OSMIJ held a workshop for all youth in Morazán to discuss their rights under the Salvadoran Law on Youth. In February they also set up an obstacle course in Cacaopera and held a well-attended community race, providing an opportunity for all ages to have well-deserved fun.

Members of OSMIJ recently gave Voices and a delegation from Georgetown University a tour of the community and a local indigenous museum. A 13 year-old member of OSMIJ named Ah tzict Amaya Martinez was our guide through the museum. With the confidence and knowledge of someone three times his age, Ah tzict spoke in depth about the community’s indigenous history, culture, and religious traditions.  His knowledge of the native, and virtually extinct, language, Kakawira, was a testament to his dedication and intimate connection to his heritage. Many other youth in OSMIJ share his passion and commitment.

In Ciudad Segundo Montes, also in Northern Morazán, youth have formed the Open House of Segundo Montes (OSCA, in Spanish) to promote youth leadership, development, sports, and culture. They offer a wide variety of workshops and trainings on an array of topics that impact local youth. During the municipal elections in 2012, OSCA hosted a series of debates between the mayoral candidates in Cacaopera, Jocoaitique, and Meanguera. The debates were well attended and offered an opportunity for youth to voice their priorities and concerns.

Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop
Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop

OSMIJ and OSCA both operate with almost no financial support from outside their community. They raise a little money from local organizations and residents, and often reach into their own often-empty pockets to fund activities. The lack of money has never prevented either organization from having a clear vision of what they want for their community and organizing activities to achieve that vision. In just a few years OSMIJ has become an important player in Cacaopera’s development.

These are just two of the many strong youth groups in Morazán, which is one of the poorest of El Salvador’s 14 departments and one of the most affected by the civil war. The region’s residents struggle with immigration, machismo, and many other issues, but the members of OSMIJ, OSCA, and other organizations are an inspiring example of how some Salvadoran youth are responding to their economic and social conditions.

It is important to understand and discuss gang violence and immigration in El Salvador – they are very serious issues. But these issues should not define all Salvadoran youth or overshadow the important role that groups like OSMIJ and OSCA play in their communities.

We at Voices on the Border have partnered with members of OSCA, OSMIJ, and other groups in Morazán on a number of activities in recent years, and have several activities planned for the coming year. If you’d like to support or be involved in these activities, please contact us at voices@votb.org.

2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

El Salvador Government, violence

Payés Takes a Bus Ride: Something Smells Bad

Yesterday, El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Security David Munguía Payés did something most unusual for a high-ranking government official – he rode a bus in San Salvador.

Dressed in a blue polo shirt, some serious sunglasses, and a ROLEX (yes, as in a super-expensive gold watch) Payés boarded the 29-F on the Juan Pablo II (a major road through San Salvador) bound for the shopping center in Soyapango. Once he paid his $0.25 fare, the Minister of Justice and Security took his seat amongst “the people.”

Photo credit: La Prensa Grafica

Payés’ bus adventure, which lasted only 10 minutes, wasn’t really meant to be an act of solidarity with his Salvadoran brothers and sisters, many of whom travel long distances by bus everyday just to get to their low-paying jobs. Nor was it an effort to raise awareness of climate change by ditching his chauffeured, gas guzzling, SUVs for public transportation.

According to La Prensa Grafica, Payés’ excursion was meant to prove that his use of military and police have made bus routes throughout San Salvador safe. He seemed to want to show the poor, who rank security among their greatest concerns, that things aren’t as bad as they make it out to be – and he was even willing to risk loosing his gold Rolex to prove it.

Payés could have done a few things to make his demonstration/publicity stunt a little more credible. For example, he could have left his three bodyguards and the Rolex at home. I’m sure most people would feel pretty safe on a bus in Soyapongo knowing they’ve got three bodyguards with them and a security detail waiting at their stop. And the Rolex surely distinguished him from anyone else riding a bus in El Salvador yesterday.

One person indicated in the comment section of the LPG article that Payés would have more credibility if he rode the bus after 7 or 8 at night when they are a little more dangerous.

And by arguing that militarization of San Salvador’s streets have made them safer, he seems perfectly comfortable with reports indicating that what Salvadorans, especially young men, fear most are the military and police.

A woman on Payés’ bus summed it up pretty well. According to the LPG article, when Payés and his bodyguards got on the bus, she was overheard telling the young boy she was riding with, “all these men getting on the bus at the same stop – something smells bad.”

El Salvador Government, violence

El Salvador Marks 100 Days of the Gang Truce and 2nd Anniversary of the Mejicanos Bus Burning

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, June 19th and 20th, marked two important dates in El Salvador’s long struggle for peace and security. Tuesday celebrated 100 days since the country’s two primary gangs signed a truce that has resulted in a rather dramatic decrease in violence. Wednesday was the second anniversary of the bus burning in Mejicanos that killed 17 people. The horrific act, which government officials and the public blamed on members of the 18th Street gang, shocked the national conscious and arguably led to the truce that was celebrated yesterday. How government officials, civil society, and the private sector respond in the coming days and weeks will determine whether this is a turning point in the country’s history or another lost opportunity.

The Bus Burning

The morning of June 20th, 2010, an armed group stopped a small bus in Mejicanos, an urban area on the outskirts of San Salvador, doused it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. In all, seventeen people were killed and many others maimed and injured.

In response to the event, President Funes introduced an anti-gang bill that made it illegal to belong to a gang, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The law was the same kind of “mano duro” (heavy handed) law that previous administrations had employed, albeit unsuccessfully, to combat gang violence. It was also the exact kind of law that President Funes had campaigned against.

The gangs responded to the proposed legislation by imposing a nation-wide curfew and 72-hour bus stoppage, threatening to kill anyone who defied the mandate. Towards the end of the 72-hour period, gang leaders held press conferences and issued statements calling for policies of inclusion and greater opportunities for youth, and dialogue with government officials about how to end the violence. They also called on the government to improve the inhumane prison conditions and offer opportunities for personal development. The administration ignored their demands and request for dialogue, and that week President Funes signed the new anti-gang bill into law.

The curfew, 72-hour bus stoppage, and press communications were the first times that leaders from the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs worked together. Until that point, the gangs had been mortal enemies and such collaboration had not been an option. Their unity was an indication of the urgency and conviction behind their words and actions.

The bus burning and curfew left the government and Salvadoran people in no mood for talking. Government officials said publicly they would not be blackmailed into negotiating with gangs that had terrorized the population. Even if administration officials had desired to negotiate with the gangs, doing so in the fall of 2010 would have had severe political consequences. Hardliners from the conservative parties would have criticized them for being weak and unable to protect the Salvadoran people.

The Truce

Something happened, however, and this past March news broke that the leaders of MS-13 and two factions of the 18th Street gangs had signed a truce that has successfully reduced El Salvador’s murder rate, which has been among the highest in the world. Salvadorans welcome the reduction in violence but fear that it is unsustainable if the government and other stakeholders fail to address the social and economic exclusion that gave rise to the violence in the first place.

The two people credited with facilitating the negotiations between the gangs were Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres and former FMLN legislator Raul Mijango. Government officials initially denied involvement in the truce but ex-military General and Minister of Justice and Public Security Munguía Payés recently acknowledged that the truce was “part of his strategy” to address the gang problem. Just before news of the truce broke, 30 incarcerated gang leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lower security facilities, and were allowed more visitations along with other rights. These concessions were consistent with those laid out by gang leaders in 2010.

Just how much the murder rate has decreased varies depending on who is reporting it. Government officials often use shorthand and simply say that the daily average number of homicides has fallen from 14 to 6 – that would be a 57% decrease. InSight Crime reported the government’s actual numbers, which put the overall drop from March to May at 42%. The actual totals they use are:

March 2011/2012 – 377/255 (decrease of 32%)

April 2011/2012 – 340/156 (decrease of 54%)

May 2011/2012 – 368/172 (decrease of 53%)

Total March-May 2011/2012 -1085/583 (decrease 0f 42%)

The InSight Crime article points out,

“The National Police statistics on homicides have differed from those kept by the Public Forensic Institute (Medicina Legal), which has released slightly higher murder counts for each month.”

Calculating the homicide rate and the success of the truce has been somewhat complicated by reports that the rate of disappearances has risen, which would seem to indicate that gang members are just disposing of their victims. According to El Faro, these reports seem somewhat unfounded. As of June 10, the police have recorded 677 disappearances so far in 2012. Minister Munguía Payes insists that this is in line with previous years. Medicina Legal reports a much higher number of disappearances, 877 in just the first four months of 2012. There were more disappearances in the first two months of the year before the truce was signed than the second two months. Based on these numbers it is difficult to even speculate that murder victims are being buried and that the homicide rate is higher than reported.

While Salvadorans welcome the decrease in violence, many remain skeptical of its long-term sustainability. Some question whether the gang leaders were sincere in signing the truce and that perhaps other motives exist. Others are concerned that the imprisoned leaders who signed the truce do not have enough control over the extensive network of ‘cliques’ that make up their gangs to enforce it. One bus driver said recently that in his line of work he has gotten to know many gang members – he fears the kids on the street will only listen to gang leaders for so long until they start killing their rivals again. He fears that if they break the truce, the violence will be more extreme than ever. It remains to be seen whether this skepticism is warranted.

A more realistic concern about the sustainability of the truce is that it does little to address the root-cause of the violence –  social and economic exclusion. This is an issue that gang leaders mentioned back in 2010 and have stressed over the past 100 days. Salvadoran youth lack appropriate opportunities for education and work, and often have no options but to join gangs.  The truce is not the solution – it’s a break in the violence so the various stakeholders can work out a long-term solution.

The gangs seem serious about working out a long-term solution. In a statement released this week, gang leaders said they are ready to start negotiating a permanent peace treaty that would hopefully end the violence for good. According to an AP report, Oscar Armando Reyes, a leader of the 18th Street gang, said,

“We want to reach a definitive cease fire to end all the criminal acts of the gangs. But we have to reach agreements, because we have to survive. There was talk of jobs plans, but we haven’t gotten any answers, and it is time for the government to listen to us.”

A few weeks ago, President Funes announced that he had an agreement with members of the private sector that they would hire youth who had been involved in gangs in order to support their reintegration into society. The same day that Funes announced the private sector agreement, gang leaders announced that they would stop recruiting new members in schools and consider ending extortions in the near future. It is unclear that the government and private sector have taken more affirmative steps to work on long-term solutions.

Some civil society leaders have expressed support for the gangs recently and called on the greater Salvadoran community to support their reintegration. Mario Vega, head pastor at Elim Christian Mission, recently stated,

“I believe that the leaders of the gangs are earnestly involved in this process, because giving one’s word implies the highest code of respect, and they don’t speak just to speak; however, they could change a commitment at any moment if they feel they are not being listened to or respected.”

Rodrigo Bolaños, the general manager of the Salvadoran Factory League of Central America that employs former gang youth, recently said gangs are a product of Salvadoran society, and therefore the responsibility of Salvadoran society.

“The kids in the gangs weren’t born in Korea… they are from here. This is a problem of our own. They are our Salvadoran brothers. Society has to understand why all this began, and there has to be some capacity to forgive.”

Raúl Mijango, who helped facilitate the truce, recently said

“We’ve got to be frank – the gangs are waiting for a response from Salvadoran society and the state, but the most difficult part will be for society to stop looking to the past, accumulating hatred and resentment.”

While the truce is extremely important to achieving peace in El Salvador, it is not THE final solution. For too long the government and media have made young gang members, tattoos and all, the scary face of violence in El Salvador. The police, attorney general’s office, other government agencies, and media have been too quick to attribute political murders, international organized crime, femicide, and so many other crimes to gangs – neighborhood kids fighting their peers.

Job programs and reintegrating gang members into society will be an important first step, but at some point Salvadorans will also have to tackle the organized criminals that use all levels of government to facilitate their drug trafficking and money laundering. They will also have to get over the machismo culture that has led to El Salvador being the world leader in femicide.

Over the past couple of years, the gangs have taken steps to end the violence they are responsible for. Hopefully, the government, civil society, and private sector will do their part.

Thanks to our good friend Colette Hellenkamp for her invaluable contributions to this article.