Before Bishop Fabio Colindres told Salvadoran government mediators in early 2012 that he would participate in a secret negotiation to stop the fighting between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, three top level Catholic Church officials had already told the government representatives that they wanted nothing to do with the talks. Colindres’ decision to participate in the controversial gang truce could have far reaching consequences for the Church, one of El Salvador’s most respected institutions.

The rifts caused by Colindres’ participation in the truce — which was signed by El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 in March of last year — are still playing out in this Central American nation of seven million people. On May 12, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, the collective body of the Church hierarchy, emitted a public statement questioning the truce.

“The truce has not produced any benefits for the honorable and hard-working population,” the statement reads, adding that extortions and other gang-related criminal activities have not slowed. 

The following is a condensed version of a white paper on the Catholic Church’s role in El Salvador’s Gang Truce. It was financed and published by American University and the Henry Luce Foundation. See full version here (pdf).

Brokering a deal with what most Salvadorans believe are parasitic criminals who prey on the weakest in society was always going to come at a cost. In return for stopping the nearly constant bloodshed between them in that country, the Salvadoran government agreed to transfer 30 of the gangs’ leaders from a maximum-security facility to other prisons around the country, increased visitation rights and removed the military from various jails. There were reportedly other concessions, such as cash payments, but these were not made public nor are they confirmed. The government has since pushed for more social and economic programs for the gang members in order to better integrate them into Salvadoran economic life and push them from the criminal activities that currently sustain them.

The truce was brokered by an ex-guerrilla and former congressman, Raul Mijango, and Colindres, the military chaplain. They had negotiated in secret for months prior to the announcement under the auspices of the country’s security minister, retired Army General David Munguia. And in the weeks after the truce came to light, they claimed they had worked independently of the government. As it turned out, Mijango had long been a consultant for Munguia, while Colindres, because of his role as the military chaplain, had a close relationship with the security minister. The government later accepted that it had “facilitated” the process but has consistently tried to keep its distance.

This is understandable given that the gang truce could be, in many ways, a political time bomb. Swapping homicides for better prison conditions is a dangerous proposition – a de facto nod that the gangs’ violent ways had secured them enough political capital to negotiate with the government at the highest levels. The gangs remain very unpopular. They have no formal political representation and have done little to develop a coherent political platform. Their strength relies on numbers – there could be as many 65,000 active members – and their willingness to use force, which they often employ to victimize the weakest and most defenseless in their communities.

Colindres’ role was particularly controversial because he is a bishop, a member of the Church hierarchy. His participation was, in essence, a nod from the country’s Catholic Church that brokering this truce was in the interest of El Salvador, despite misgivings from some of his colleagues. It seemed to help legitimize the process to the public and the country’s elite. Colindres is from the Church’s more conservative wing, thus his participation may also serve as a means to involve the business community in what is an ongoing process.

The Bishop told InSight Crime he had decided to participate without consulting the Catholic Conference of Bishops and that he was motivated by the Church’s long-standing humanitarian role, specifically in improving the conditions for prisoners. However, the Church’s role appears to be more symbolic than real. Colindres was not Munguía’s or Mijango’s first choice, and the negotiators openly stated they needed a Church representative in order to legitimize the truce.

The Conference of Bishops, while it voiced its support of its Bishop initially, has stayed mostly quiet since and even, to a certain extent, distanced itself from Colindres, leading many to believe there is a deep divide within the Church over how to deal with the truce. The May 12 statement seems to confirm this divide. Although signed by Colindres, the statement comes just weeks after Colindres himself visited the United States in an attempt to promote the truce. 

There are many other factors in play that have led to divisions within the Church over Colindres’ decision to participate in the truce. Colindres’ appears content to play this small, even symbolic role. Others in the Church would like to play a more active role in shaping the truce and implementing the programs to sustain it; or, at the very least, establish conditions upon which the Church will participate. Colindres has isolated himself and the process with the gangs, keeping some of the Church at arm’s length. The Bishop seems oblivious to the possible political consequences for the Church should the truce unravel, and the Church seems powerless to stop him from participating.

Untangling Colindres’ and the Church’s role in the truce is not easy. Despite its success in lowering homicide rates by half – a remarkable accomplishment by any measure – and moves into the next phases of implementing job training and other economic programs, the truce is not universally popular. Polls show most people are skeptical of the gangs’ intentions and the truce’s possible consequences, particularly as they relate the country’s political future. The international community is also divided. The United States Government has expressed concern, while the Organization of American States has sent emissaries to facilitate the ongoing process.

For his part, Colindres defends his actions and says the naysayers are jealous of his role. It is a role he seems to embrace even as the truce moves into its next phase. Ironically, the government’s callous use of the Church and Colindres’ isolation from its hierarchy may play a role in the truce’s undoing. Neither the government nor Colindres can implement the next phase of the truce without the backing of institutions like the Church. However, at this point, that fence may be too hard to mend. 

*This is part of white paper series produced by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studiesmulti-year project of research and structured dialogue on religion and violence in Latin America. See full paper here (pdf). In light of the consequences of criminal violence for the region’s democracies, the project seeks to better understand how religious actors are responding today, when they are less prominent than during the previous period of political, largely state-sponsored violence. Fresh research on Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru allows comparative analysis between different countries as well as past and present. The project is supported by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs of the Henry Luce Foundation.

For ongoing project developments, see:

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...