The Gang Truce in El Salvador

Today we’re going to take a break from all the U.S. news and look at some events in Latin America, specifically in El Salvador, where the Catholic Church and the government have helped broker a controversial truce between the country’s two biggest gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang.

The gangs announced a truce in March 2012, asking in return that the government introduce better prison conditions (El Salvador has the most overcrowded prisons in the world, with 26,000 inmates in prisons built for 8,400) and more rehabilitation programs for gang members looking to leave that life behind.

The truce was a result of talks between imprisoned leaders from both the gangs and facilitated by the head chaplain for the military and police and a former advisor from the current government in El Salvador, the FMLN.

This is a stark departure from previous attempts to quell gang activity in El Salvador, which had principally relied on more arrests and harsher penalties.

While the truce has led to a major decrease in El Salvador’s sky-high murder rate (exact statistics vary), other criminal activity, such as kidnappings and extortion, continue unabated, and many ordinary Salvadorans continue to pay into the gangs’ protection rackets. And some worry that the decrease in violent clashes between the gangs and fewer police raids have actually given the gangs a greater opportunity to consolidate their territories.

While an emphasis on rehabilitation and crime prevention is preferable to increased militarization of police forces, it has been criticized for legitimizing the gangs as political actors and allowing them to use the threat of violence as a bargaining chip in getting greater concessions from the government.

There has also been considerable concern regarding the transparency of the government’s dealings with the gangs. A number of different stories have taken shape regarding the early role of the government in the truce process, ranging from claims that they were not involved at all to ones that the minister for public security came up with the whole idea of a truce.

While gang truces are unusual, the idea is not totally without precedent. Two other instances of similar truces are Trinidad and Tobago, and Los Angeles. In both cases the truces ultimately failed, and violence resurged. However, some analysts say that the gangs involved in those cases were less organized than the gangs in El Salvador, and did not have the same strong hierarchy as MS-13 and 18th Street for enforcing the truce.

Right now, the jury is still out on the long-term efficacy of the truce in El Salvador. A recent poll there showed that over half the country’s population either did not think the truce would improve their lives, or were unsure. But it has its defenders, one of whom said, “The truce is not the solution, but without it, there is no solution.”

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