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An Information and Analysis Blog from El Salvador
Please read and share our current Gofundme campaign. LINK HERE
Every donation contributes to the emergency relocation and short-term economic assistance for a Bajo Lempa family in need.
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.
On the 1st, we launched a Global Giving fundraising campaign for an intensive educational project in the Bajo Lempa. To date, we’ve recieved numerous generous donations and have less than a week to reach our goal. Today Global Giving will be matching donations at 20%.
Have you been wondering what our Bajo Lempa education project is all about? Click on the PDF below to get a better understanding of the nuts and bolts and, as always, feel free to share.
LEER, Lograr en Educación Rural / Success in Rural Education
Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.
A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.
In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.
Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.
Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.
For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.
In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.
Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.
Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”
Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.
La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.
Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.
La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.
Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.
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.
Yesterday, elsalvador.com posted an article about gangs extorting tourists in the Jiquilisco Bay, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.
The article reports that police have investigated three cases of extortion and arrested six adults and a minor. The gangs seem to be stopping tourists and delivery trucks when they slow down for speed bumps on the road through the Bajo Lempa and out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and charge them between $5 and 25 to continue
Gang activity has increased dramatically in the region over the past few weeks, with a greater presence in El Zamorano, La Canoa, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and Corral de Mulas, as well as smaller communities where they have not had much of a presence in the past. Police estimate that there are between 60-90 gang members now living in the region.
The elsalvador.com article also reports that l gangs are intimidating locals by walking around and even eating in restaurants with automatic rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. Police confirm that gangs have at least 3 M-16 rifles in the region.
The reports of extortion and increased gang presence are already affecting small, locally operated restaurants and hotels that serve the region’s small tourism industry. The number of Salvadorans who visit the area has already begun to drop off. As news of the arrests and extortion activities increase, traffic in the region is likely to decrease even more.
Community leaders say gangs have told residents they won’t bother them. But there are two warring gangs in the region and people are worried about getting caught in the crossfire. One NGO worker said he is not worried about the gang members from the community where he works – he knows them and their families, and they have never bothered him. He is concerned about being caught in the middle if rival gangs come looking them.
Local leaders and parents are also concerned about the influence of the gangs on their youth. Communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula are economically depressed and youth often lack access to education. Sometimes access is not a question of distance, rather an issue of getting to and from school safely. Youth that have finished the sixth grade are often unable to continue studying and lack job opportunities, making them prime candidates for gang recruitment.
There have been gangs in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for a while, but their numbers and activities have been limited. The rather sudden influx of gang members from other areas and their brazen show of arms have led some in the region to believe the issue goes beyond extortion of cars along the main road. Several people are concerned that those with an interest in large-scale tourism are using the gangs to destabilize the region’s growing opposition to their development plans. Others fear the gangs and extortion are an effort to drive off the small-scale, local restaurants and hotels that serve Salvadorans who visit the zone. This will make room for larger, well-financed tourism projects that will serve North Americans and Europeans.
This would not be the first time that gangs have been used to shake up a social movement or influence public opinion. In June/July 2009 alleged gang members in Cabañas killed anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. Other alleged gang members were involved in the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, others, in Cabañas later that year.
At this point there is no way to know who is supplying the automatic weapons or whether the influx of alleged gang activities is related to tourism and an effort to destabilized organizational efforts. But residents throughout the region understand that this is certainly a possibility the have to consider.
Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.
President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.
Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.
President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”
President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.
Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.
Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.
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.
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.
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.
Foreign Affairs (Latin America edition) published a series of articles in 2011 discussing the supposed emergence in Mexico of a “narcoinsurgencia.” The term was used to describe Mexican drug cartels as a form of insurgency that could threaten the state. Most experts agreed that organized crime couldn’t be considered an “insurgency,” noting that they are motivated by profits, not by a political or ideological agenda.
Powerful criminal organizations often penetrate every aspect of the society they operate in, including politics, culture, the economy and its democratic institutions. In certain circumstances, criminal organizations take over or replace the state—providing security, administering justice and funding social works projects for the benefit of the communities under their control. This was the case of Pablo Escobar in Medellin, Colombia in the 1980s and is the case today in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Despite significant influence in certain Latin American countries, however, criminal organizations have never been seen as legitimate political and social actors. This may be changing in El Salvador, where gangs seem to be evolving into influential political and social agents.
Similar to drug cartels in Mexico, gangs in El Salvador are a source of instability and an obstacle to the economic, social and political development of the country. Successive governments since the 1990s have adopted hard-line policies towards gangs with programs such as Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura. The effectiveness of such an approach has been limited as violence has seemingly increased without restraint despite the government’s tough stance.
President Funes came to office promising a new approach—a mix of punitive measures and social and economic programs to combat the root cause of the gang phenomenon in El Salvador. More than half way thru his five year term, Funes has failed to reduce the level of violence and improve public safety. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (70 for every 100,000 inhabitants).
In this context, the recent dramatic reduction in the daily homicide rate of almost 60 percent has been welcomed with skepticism by Salvadoran civil society. According to public accounts, the reduction in violence stems from a “truce” between the two main gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and Barrio 18).
El Faro first broke the story March 14, reporting that the government had held secret negotiations with gang leaders, which resulted in the transfer of some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country from maximum to lower security facilities in exchange for a reduction in the daily homicide rate. Other media reports alleged cash payments from the government to the families of certain gang leaders. The government denied any negotiations had taken place.
Catholic Church officials later revealed that they had mediated between the two gangs. Gang leaders and church officials also denied any government involvement, and characterized the negotiations as an extension of a long process of “reflection.” The mediators described the truce as an “act of good will” from the gangs towards society. Government officials have since acknowledged a supporting role in the mediations.
Since the disclosure of the “truce,” gang leaders have asserted themselves as legitimate political actors, issuing press releases, appearing in political talk shows from prison and even proposing national policy changes. Their rhetoric is decisively political, arguing that gangs are a product of “misguided socioeconomic policies derived from the economic models implemented in El Salvador.” In public comments, gang leaders talk about “social exclusion, marginalization and repression” and claim to represent the interest of their “members” and their “barrios.”
Negotiating with criminal organizations is often discussed as a policy alternative in Latin American countries afflicted by high levels of violence. Proponents argue that the state can appease violent criminal groups without breaking the law and allow for the pacification of society. The reduction in violence would bring economic benefits that would serve to reinforce a virtuous cycle that would eventually diminish the influence of organized crime.
Appeasing criminal organizations through negotiations and concessions, however, are probably unsustainable unless the government is also willing to address the socio-economic and political issues that allow for gangs to flourish. El Salvador’s civil war and its gang phenomenon grew out of the same structural inequalities that have haunted the country for much of its history. Ultimately, El Salvador will be unable to escape the violence, whether it manifests in gangs, organized crime, or civil war, until it deals with the structural causes.
It is also a struggle to consider criminal organizations as legitimate representatives of the marginalized masses, even in the areas that they control. Their legitimacy stems not from democratic elections but from violence, fear, and the victimization of society as a whole. Violence is their main bargaining chip when they sit down at the negotiating table, and their recourse is to continue holding society hostage. And if El Salvador is going to have a democracy, fear and violence cannot be allowed to serve as a route to political and social legitimacy, just like wealth should not give one person more of a voice than another.
The evolution of gangs as political and social actors reflects the failures of the Salvadoran state and the country’s democratic institutions. The state has failed to effectively perform its most basic functions; to guarantee the security of its people. El Salvador’s democratic institutions have failed to produce policies to incorporate the marginalized masses into the economic, social and political life of the country.
While the decrease in violence is welcomed, the Salvadoran government must take advantage of the respite to begin addressing the fundamental problems they have been ignoring for generations. Otherwise, its just a matter of time before the violence begins to rise again.