Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Future of El Salvador's Gang Truce

I was recently invited to comment on the gang truce between the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs in El Salvador for the Inter-American Dialogue’s daily Latin America Advisor. Here is what a few of us were asked to respond to:
Police registered 2,576 killings in El Salvador in 2012, down from 4,371 the year before, EFE reported. A top police official said the decline was partially due to a truce last March between gangs. What is keeping the truce together? Is it likely to continue holding? Will the decline in killings encourage the governments of other Central American countries to seek similar truces with gangs?
As you can imagine, it was pretty difficult to put a decent answer together in 250 words. I was stuck for some time around 450. Anyway, I said that the truce has, in many ways, held because gang leaders and the Funes administration have wanted it to hold. It sounds a bit like a cop out but here me out.

The government has accepted a situation that leads to fewer murders but a marginal reduction in extortion and other crimes. Gang leaders have received better prison conditions but not a number of reforms that they requested. The gangs and the administration have also managed to keep the truce together while giving the rest of society time to catch up - see the new sanctuary cities. There's been a lot of skepticism to overcome given ten years of gang violence, the secrecy of the truce's negotiations, and the uncovering of mask graves.

Given all the challenges surrounding the integration of thousand of former gang members into society and the likely rejection of the truce by some members, patience and restraint are going to be needed for several years.

Will the truce hold? I'm not sure that anyone knows the answer to this question.There's a good chance that some gang members won't accept the truce and some young Salvadorans decide to create their own gangs. Every country has gangs of some variety. As I sort of mentioned in an Al Jazeera post last year, I would consider the truce a success if there are fewer gang members a year from now, those gangs that do exist are less violent, and the government adopts a more comprehensive approach to at-risk youth. Even if some return to gang life, which I fully expect to happen, I would consider the truce a success if these others conditions were met.

As regards to Honduras and Guatemala, it seems as if the gangs in those countries are of a different beast. Truces wouldn't bring similar benefits. More drug trafficking in Honduras and organized crime in Guatemala perhaps. The gang on gang violence does not seem to comprise the same number of homicides. And, at this time, neither government seems inclined to negotiate with gang leaders. Otto Perez Molina looked liked he might consider speaking with gangs but then said that he was misunderstood. I don't think it would hurt to engage in dialogue but similar truces don't appear to be in the cards.

You can read my complete answer here as well as contributions from a terrific group: El Salvador's Ambassador to the United States Francisco Altschul, the Secretary of Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States Adam Blackwell, and Executive Director of Homies Unidos and co-chair of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) Alex Sanchez and his fellow co-chair of TAGSPPES Steve Vigil.

What do you think? Is there anything significant that we missed?

I'd like to thank the people at the Inter-American Dialogue’s daily Latin America Advisor for asking me to contribute and for giving me the permission to reproduce Friday's newsletter.


  1. @HsilvAvalos wants to know more about the links between Salvadoran gangs and organized crime.

  2. I would be interested to know more about the US position as this is very important for the future. There is no official position but at the same time in Honduras the US is very much involved in supporting anti-gang policies.

  3. Here is Linda Gerrett's take on US involvment -

    I mentioned the same thing briefly on Twitter last week. Isn't it about time that the US lends its support to the truce? On the other hand, the US is still providing anti-gang assistance, nearly $1 billion the MCC compacts and the PFG.

    And just over a year ago, many were blaming the US for forcing the Salvadorans to replace Melgar with Munguia Payes. I don't think that was the case but, if it was, the US was pretty important to getting this entire process started.