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.

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El Salvador Government, Organized Crime

The Evolution of Gangs as Political and Social Actors in El Salvador

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.