Earlier this week, the truce between the MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang in El Salvador reached the 100-day mark. The truce has reduced homicides from approximately 14 to 5 per day. In recent weeks, that number has climbed a bit to 7.
The truce provides an important opportunity to reduce overall levels of violence in El Salvador. While most of the reporting is on whether 60,000 or so gang members can change, the truce won't stick if we are just asking the men and women who are members of gangs to change.
The state needs to change and make reforms that move its public security institutions away from mano dura and super man dura. The policies were critical to the expansion of gang-related crime. (I will have more on this at Al Jazeera probably this weekend).
If death squads that are eliminating gang member and former gang members continue to operate with impunity in El Salvador, the truce is bound to fail. If police continue to abuse gang members, whether they are in the process of arresting them or just harassing them, the truce is unlikely to hold. As long as prison conditions remain inhumane and authorities keep rounding up young men and women, the truce is unlikely to hold.
Finally, US foreign policy towards El Salvador, including economic, immigration, and security assistance, needs to change. El Salvador needs foreign direct investment and jobs. American businesses should be encouraged to invest in El Salvador to take advantage of the Millennium grants and the US' Partnership for Growth. Businesses or politicians that redirect investment to El Salvador should not come under political attack.
President Obama's decision to withhold deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants is a good start, but won't substitute for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for most of those living in the US illegally. President Obama could move to make TPS for Salvadorans permanent instead of two year extensions that look like they will go on forever.
Finally, the US needs to change its security assistance / approach to El Salvador - more financial and human resources need to be dedicated to gang prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies. The US could provide more support to the country's criminal justice system. Perhaps, at this time, there could be a serious discussion as to how to better assist gang members who want to leave the violence behind. Historically, it doesn't look like the US and Salvadoran governments have been able to deal effectively with gang members who want out or those who have gotten out.
I don't expect all 60,000 gang members in El Salvador to miraculously change their lives around. How do we assist those that do (10k, 20k, 30k?)? Experience has shown that many are going to fail on their first effort at transforming their lives. Are Salvadoran and US authorities ready to work with these young men and women, some not so young, so that as many as possible can turn their lives around?
So just to be clear, the truce gives the gang members a chance to reclaim lives of dignity for themselves and their families. However, it's not just the gang members that need to change. US policy and the Salvadoran state and people also need to change. They are getting a second chance as well.