One year on from a secretly negotiated truce between El Salvador’s two biggest gangs, discerning the facts is almost as difficult as it was when gang leaders were shuttled to lower security prisons in the dead of night, kicking off the deal.
The truce — which is technically between the country’s foremost gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, but was facilitated by the government’s security minister and a representative of the Catholic Church — has been complicated and controversial.
There is little information about what exactly has been exchanged between the gangs and the government. There are splits within the Mauricio Funes administration and the Catholic Church over whether the truce is a good strategy. The gangs are not political actors, but are positioning themselves to reap the spoils of the deal.
But the truce has been an incredible experiment that other governments, multilateral organizations, academics and analysts are watching closely. Homicides are down by close to half. Gang leaders are calling for their members to get involved in job training and other programs. The international donor community is lining up to finance the next phase. The pact seems to have taken on a life of its own, but with violence creeping up, the gains feel shaky.
The truce has also taught us a lot about El Salvador, the gangs themselves, and the other actors involved in these negotiations. Here are five things we have learned since the pact was signed:
1. These gangs were responsible for more than half of the homicides in the country. Prior to the truce, the numbers were shaky, but most academics and many of those who work with gangs thought that the gangs were responsible for less than 30 percent of the homicides in El Salvador. The murder rate plummeted immediately after the truce and has stayed relatively steady, providing virtually irrefutable evidence that these gangs were killing at a rate that surprised even the most cynical observer. There are those that whisper of a secret narco-pact with Salvadoran drug trafficking groups that is supposedly the real driver of these negotiations. But this rumor presupposes the type of coordination and secrecy that the authorities do not seem capable of in El Salvador. The gang pact itself was a secret for less than four days before it was exposed by news organization El Faro.
2. Gangs have more hierarchical control over their members than we thought. The number of gang members is still an unknown, but reaches into the tens of thousands. Control of what is nothing less than an army of well-armed, underemployed young men and women is difficult in any circumstances. So for many, the fact that the truce has lasted a year is a minor miracle. To be sure, these are trying times. Murders have increased in recent weeks, and there are accusations that the pact to keep the peace is being maintained by force. However, the impressive display of discipline within the gangs has provided evidence of a more sophisticated, albeit subsistence level, operation. These groups are not international drug traffickers — in spite of what the Treasury Department says — but they are criminal phenomena that require attention.
3. The government does not want anyone to know what is happening. From the beginning, the truce was meant to be a secret. On one level, this is understandable. By negotiating with gangs (via proxies), the government is admitting that it cannot control them and, perhaps worse, that it is willing to negotiate as if it were the hostage. The secrecy reached ridiculous levels, and led to threats against the journalists who broke the story. Now, as we approach the next phase, in which the government is calling for participation from various sectors of society, there is a need to put all the cards on the table so that Salvadorans know what they are getting in return for their sacrifice.
4. No one really cares what most Salvadorans think. From the beginning, civil society has been excluded from this pact. The few polls tell us that most Salvadorans are not in favor of negotiating with the gangs, and do not trust them. But many of those who have worked with gangs for years are not part of this process. Non-governmental umbrella group Fundacion Humanitaria, created to channel the concerns of civil society, seems like little more than a shell through which international donors can direct funds. The process is gaining steam, but it is missing some critical voices.
5. The Catholic Church is deeply divided. Perhaps the greatest irony of this process has been that the parts of the Church with the most experience in working with gangs and in poor neighborhoods are isolated from the process, and many of them oppose it; while a person with little experience who is associated with more conservative parts of the Church and Salvadoran society is helping forge it. Bishop Fabio Colindres is the military chaplain, and in spite of the Church’s efforts to distance itself from his actions, he has become the institution’s face in this process. Where Colindres goes, so goes the Church.