Honduras gangs committed this week to keeping violence rates low as the first step in a series of dialogues with appointed mediators. But as this second gang truce in Central America comes into focus, there are several key questions worth asking.
1. What exactly is this?
On May 28, representatives from the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs (MS-13) read aloud pledges to cease violence and recruitment, from inside the Sampedrano penal center in San Pedro Sula.
As La Prensa reports, the Barrio 18 stated that they were committed to halting violence and other criminal activities if the government “listened” to them. They also said that it was too early in the process to discuss committing to stopping extortion, a major source of funds for the organization.
The MS-13 pledged to no longer commit murders, carry out extortions, or other types of crime. A representative vowed to “offer zero violence,” adding, “this is only the first step.” He added that the order was “immediate” and effective across the entire country, stating, “All the guys know after today what they have to do.”
But this is not a truce. According to La Prensa, the Church leader who helped broker the deal said it would be possible to come to a more formal peace agreement in the future, depending on some “factors.”
“There will be a possibility of a truce later, but not today,” he asserted.
So what is it? A pre-agreement? A commitment?
The statements were viewed as the beginning of a longer series of negotiations between the gangs. The Church’s broker said one of the main aims of the process was to lower Honduras’ violence rate, which currently stands at about 85 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. But it’s not clear what we are talking about yet.
2. Who is running this thing?
Organization of American States (OAS) representative Adam Blackwell and Bishop Romulo Emiliani were present at the announcements and have been credited with brokering the agreement. (Emiliani reportedly began the process months ago.) And thus far, the government’s reaction has been positive. President Porfirio Lobo said he was willing to support Blackwell and Emiliani in “all that is necessary.”
But the Honduran government’s position is even more opaque than the El Salvador government, which did not acknowledge its role in brokering the agreement in that country until months into the process.
Still, the El Salvador truce carried with it immediate dividends for the gang leaders as they were transferred to medium-security prisons. The transfer was a sign that the government had bought in. There have been no similar signs from the Honduras government as of yet. Without signs of a Honduran government buy-in, this “cease-fire” (or whatever it is) could be short-lived.
In an interview with El Heraldo, Emiliani argued that a government concession would be vital, stating, “We have to have some type of negotiation and concede [the gangs] something, because we have to change something, because we don’t want them to continue committing crimes.” As an example of a concession, Emiliani said the government should create a rehabilitation program in the prisons, and a “colony” where gang members recently released from prison could live.
3. What do the gangs want?
In El Salvador’s case, the government agreed to transfer key Mara leaders to different prisons, and offer them several benefits such as access to cell phones and conjugal visits. In Honduras, the Barrio 18 member who read their official statement said that the gangs’ only demand in exchange for reducing violence was that “the police stop killing us,” and that the government “listen” and “provide jobs.” (Notably, statements by the Barrio 18 had much stronger implications that they expected the government to respond to the gangs’ demands. This may be partly a reflection of the Barrio 18’s power in Honduras, which, in contrast to El Salvador, is stronger than the MS-13).
But the gangs’ motives are unclear. What’s more, any concessions by the government imply acknowledging the gang’s status as political actors. This has brought no small amount of controversy in neighboring El Salvador because of the dangerous precedent it sets. If killing leads to more political capital, what message is being sent?
As time goes on, the gangs need to take clearer, transparent positions.
4. What can we expect?
When Bishop Emiliani first announced the truce on May 24, he warned that it was unlikely that Honduras would see a decline in violence similar to El Salvador’s, noting that gang members said they were not responsible for much of Honduras’ violence. While it is difficult to quantify how many of Honduras’ homicides are committed by gang members, it is true that there are many other actors to blame — including the police themselves. It is thus possible that even if Honduras’ gangs formally agree to cease all killings, it would not bring about the same dramatic drop in murders as was seen in El Salvador.
There are other reasons why a Honduran gang truce would be more difficult to implement. One key difference is that the Honduran gangs are not believed to have a centralized leadership; nor are the leaders thought to wield tight control over their street “cliques,” when compared to El Salvador.
5. Are “gang truces” a sustainable policy that should be replicated across the region?
There is some evidence that those involved in El Salvador’s gang truce are keen on seeing similar truces brokered elsewhere in Central America. Last year, one of the El Salvador gang truce mediators stated that the El Salvador gangs had been in contact with their Honduran counterparts, in the interest of replicating the process. At the time, he mentioned that Honduran authorities showed little interest in facilitating such an initiative. Maras in Guatemala have also reportedly expressed interest in duplicating the Salvadoran experience.
However, El Salvador’s experience may be difficult to export. That truce has been, at times, a shaky process. Given that (relatively speaking), El Salvador has a stronger government and is less corrupt than Honduras, it is worth questioning to what degree the Honduran institutions are capable of supporting negotiations. What’s more, gang truces in general have not worked in the region.
Indeed, the apparent willingness of the Honduran government to attempt to replicate El Salvador’s truce could arguably be interpreted as a sign of desperation. They may risk granting significant political power to the maras, but what else has worked, or is working, in Honduras, in terms of security policy? The statements shared this week by the MS-13 and Barrio 18 leaders offered something very unusual indeed: the glimpse of a possibility that maybe, somehow, things would start getting better in the world’s most violent country — even if only slightly.