Fears that the two largest street gangs in El Salvador are taking advantage of a proclaimed cease fire to reorganize and expand their overall influence are largely unfounded, as both the government’s strategy and the structure of the gangs themselves appear to be keeping this in check.(Editor's Note: Author's response below.)
In a recently published report, Douglas Farah of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that the current truce between El Salvador’s rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs, which was likely facilitated in part by the government, represents a “high-stakes policy gamble.” The report, “The Transformation of El Salvador’s Gangs into Political Actors” (.pdf), asserts that by offering imprisoned gang leaders better prison conditions in exchange for an end to executions, extortion and the recruitment of minors, the administration of President Mauricio Funes runs the risk of exacerbating the country’s security situation in the long term.
According to Farah, the truce has emboldened the maras by giving them a taste of political power. The basis of this political influence is the remarkable improvement in security that has occurred since the truce was first announced in March. In its first 100 days, the average number of homicides per day in El Salvador has dropped from 14 to just five. The apparent success of the cease fire has drawn the attention of other governments in the region, with officials in Guatemala and Honduras announcing that they would study the applicability of the truce model in their own countries.
But while homicides have fallen, the report notes that the number of reported disappearances in the country has increased. Farah cites data from the Supreme Court’s Office of Legal Medicine (IML), which on June 1 reported that there had been 876 reported cases of disappearances in the first four months of this year. He rightly points out that this is twice the number of disappearances reported in the same period for 2011. However, this figure is problematic as just two weeks before, the IML claimed that only 692 disappearances had been registered from January 1 to April 30 of 2012. The reason for this discrepancy is unclear, but casts doubt on Farah’s assertion that the IML has “always functioned as a reliable source of statistics.” The El Salvadoran security minister has also suggested that the IML numbers are not entirely reliable, saying that they do not remove a “disappeared” person from their database if they are reported found again.
Regardless of the truce’s specific accomplishments, Farah claims that it has provided the gangs with a dangerous sense of control over the Funes administration. Instead of bringing about long term improvements to security, this dynamic has the potential to allow both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 to deepen their influence over El Salvador’s politics.
Mara kingpins, according to interviews with gang members that Farah has conducted, now believe that they can obtain even more perks from the government, simply by threatening a resurgence of violence. He writes: “Surprised and pleased with the results of the negotiations, their leaders are beginning to understand that territorial control and cohesion make it possible for them to wring concessions from the state while preserving their essence of their criminal character. They are already discussing backing certain candidates for local and national office in exchange for protection and the ability to dictate parts of the candidate’s agenda.”
But while concerns over the increasing sophistication of the maras are valid, there is reason to believe that Farah may be overstating the extent of their transition into political players. All in all, the concessions granted to jailed MS-13 and Barrio 18 leaders have been relatively minor. An investigation by El Faro found that the government facilitated the truce by transferring some 30 gang bosses in custody to lesser security prisons for their cooperation, a move which also granted them access to outside visits and cell phone use. While there were initial rumors that top mara leaders were offered financial incentives to bring down violence, this has not been confirmed.
These allowances still point towards the state as the dominant actor. No leaders were freed, no amnesty was granted, and there has been no evidence that the Funes administration has backed away from its pledge to aggressively pursue active gang members on the streets. If anything, the government has appeared to use the truce as an opportunity to intensify its anti-gang strategy. In April it rolled out a new elite law enforcement unit specifically designed to target the mara threat, and police are still carrying out mass arrests like the June 21 “mega-operation” which resulted in the capture of 185 suspected gang members in the San Salvador area.
It is true that El Salvador’s maras are showing signs of increasingly hierarchical organization. The fact that an agreement reached by appeasing some 30 imprisoned gang members can have such a drastic impact on the country’s homicide rate is proof of this. But this still does not necessarily mean that they have the capacity to become political actors in the way that Farah describes. Even if mara leaders are interested in getting to the point of influencing local and national elections, they simply lack the resources. While the leaders of major drug trafficking organizations like Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel rake in millions of dollars annually, both MS-13 and Barrio 18 obtain most of their finances through extortion and local drug sales, which does not provide them with kind of income necessary to wield political influence.
There is evidence that the maras have become more organized and more respectful of the gang hierarchy -- this became clear when the mara leaders inside the prison system were able to widely enforce the order that their foot soldiers keep violence to a minimum. So while it's obvious the maras are evolving, it is still a big leap before they become capable of backing political candidates for office on a mass scale. El Salvador's gangs are just not there yet.
Doug Farah Responds:
I respectfully disagree with Geoffrey Ramsey's conclusion that government concessions to gang leaders were "relatively minor." In fact, the first batch was moved, but subsequently other leaders have also been transferred, in addition to the 30 original leaders. More importantly, moving from a maximum security prison with no outside communications, extremely limited visits, no conjugal visits and greatly enhanced communications among the leaders themselves, is enormously important. The primary reason is that the leaders control the clicas on the street through cell phones and messengers, both of which are now readily available to them. The ability to meet together to plan, consolidate and discuss is also a significant step for the mara leadership. This does not, as Mr. Ramsey continues, point to the state as a dominant actor. It points to the fact that every time they want something, the gangs get it. They asked for special treatment, and got everything they asked for. They can force a breakdown at virtually any time simply by threatening to put bodies on the street. The state has ceded the terms of negotiations to the maras, not vice versa. The irony is that, while the government claims to be weakening the maras' command and control structure, they have strengthened it by orders of magnitude, and the success of the policy depends on the ability of the mara leaders to maintain gang discipline.
Finally, on the issue of political actors, Mr. Ramsey did not understand my point. They do not have resources to enter the elections, but that is not what I said. They are in the position to deliver entire barrios to any candidate, simply by ordering the gangs and their families who live in those barrios to vote a certain way. As they discussed with me, they are without ideology. They are considering offering their voting power to candidates who will promise them specific concessions and give them types of support. This is not buying the elections from the top, but rather a growing awareness that the ability to move several thousand votes in territory under their control (rather than simply sitting out the elections as they have normally done) gives them the ear of many politicians.
International Assessment and Strategy Center