Members of the government and mediators of El Salvador's gang truce attribute the recent increase in homicides to the fact that the security minister and the attorney general closed the means of dialogue between the gangs by arresting their spokespeople outside of prison. By dusk on Friday, May 23, it was shaping up to be the most violent day of 2014.
With little more than a week until the current government leaves office, judicial and public security authorities dismantled what remained of the truce; all of the channels of dialogue with the gangs are now broken. (See InSight Crime's article on how these channels were established to reduce violence.)
Over the last two weeks, four gang members who served as spokesmen for their respective groups outside of prison have been arrested. These people represented their gangs in a permanent dialogue with the mediators Raul Mijango and Fabio Colindres, and their arrest takes away the only remaining means of communication between Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the two factions of Barrio 18 and the mediators. A year ago, when Ricardo Perdomo replaced General David Munguia Payes as security minister, he decided to block the channels of dialogue between the imprisoned gang leaders as well as between these leaders and their representatives outside of prison.
After he began working at the ministry, at the end of May 2013, Perdomo made it clear that he did not agree with Munguia Payes' strategy of fostering dialogue between the gangs. Instead Perdomo limited the contact between the incarcerated gang leaders and their groups outside prison as much as possible. Up to that point, the presidency had maintained that it was precisely this contact that permitted the groups to fulfill the terms of the truce and helped cut the country's homicide rate in half.
Perdomo prohibited the media from accessing jails to interview gang leaders, cancelled the regular meetings in which the leaders of rival gangs met in the Mariona prison, and broke ties with the principal mediator in the process, Mijango. The number of homicides almost immediately began to increase, with the greatest number occurring on July 3 when 27 people were killed.
This strategy generated a steady increase in the average number of homicides per day. Since then, the mediators of the truce have blamed the minister for undermining their mediation strategies and have held him responsible for the slow, but constant, rise in murders, which on Friday, May 23, reached the highest number this year with 30 homicides.
With access to the jailed leaders closed off, the mediators and the gangs created a new system to attempt to continue the process: every gang named two delegates outside of prison to represent the organization and serve as spokesmen for the jailed leaders. Mijango continued meeting with the six delegates from MS13 and the two factions of Barrio 18. However, the murders kept slowly increasing and the mediators continued attributing this rise to the difficulties imposed by Perdomo.
During the month of May the authorities dismantled the new system of dialogue, arresting the two representatives of the "Revolucionarios" faction of Barrio 18 (the other faction is called the "Sureños") and the main spokesman for MS13. The rest of the gang delegates stopped communicating with each other for fear of being captured themselves. And currently there is no means of mediation with the gangs.
Of the three arrested gang members, two were freed after being detained for a few days, but have kept their distance from the negotiating table for fear of being arrested again. It wasn't possible for El Faro to obtain the executive orders that led to the arrest of these gang members, but according to sources in the government, the operation was specifically directed against them because of their status as gang leaders.
Mijango declined to comment on this situation. Paolo Lüers, a member of Mijango's mediating team, said that the team had been able to make contact with the gang members who had been freed, but that it was impossible to renew the talks.
This was the final blow by the security minister and Attorney General Luis Martínez against a process both have described as dark and hypocritical, and that Perdomo has claimed was planned by drug traffickers to distract people from their operations.
The cold war between the mediators and the minister became more obvious when, almost a month before leaving office, the minister announced his own version of the truce. Perdomo named the priest Antonio Rodriguez, known as "Padre Toño" -- who has made an effort to displace Mijango and position himself as the primary intermediary -- as the coordinator of his endeavor.
The Attorney General Challenges An OAS Delegate
This Friday, May 23, was a particularly violent day. By the time this story was put to bed at 9:30 pm, 28 murders had been reported, including two massacres of six people each. One of these massacres occurred when men boarded a bus on Route 302, heading from Comalapa to San Salvador, and opened fire on the passengers. Although at first it seemed as if the assassins had shot without a specific target, it was later revealed that two guards from the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca and a police investigator were on the bus.
In the other massacre, six workers from the El Triunfo port in the Usulutan province were killed. These people had been reported as missing since the day before and were found partially buried in the area of Mapachin, close to a river basin. Three of the victims were brothers and the oldest of the three was 22 years old.
During the last few hours of the day, more homicides were registered, for a total of at least 30.
Lüers attributed the increase in homicides to the fact that it is getting more and more difficult to control criminal structures with a national presence, particularly when their representatives at the negotiating table are arrested. In addition, he said, the revolutionary faction of Barrio 18 is undergoing a period of internal conflict in the La Paz province.
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For his part, Attorney General Martinez did not want to confirm the detention of the gangs' spokesmen.
"When I detain someone, I don't go around asking if they're protected or not by this mediator or that mediator," he said in a telephone interview in response to questions from El Faro. In reference to the homicides on May 23, he added, "What we're seeing is the result of what I warned about a while ago: the truce was always a fake scenario."
He called the people who instigated or mediated the truce "deceitful" because "they lie as much to the gangs as they do to society."
Among those who participated in the dialogue process is a representative from the Organization of American States (OAS), who became a guarantor of the agreements. The attorney general addressed a message to him: "I challenge Adam Blackwell [ambassador of the OAS] not to be a coward and to face the results we are reaping now."
Future Security Minister Benito Lara claims he had no knowledge of these detentions, in spite of the evident impact they could have on the future of the truce and the situation he will inherit on June 1 when the new government elected in March officially takes power. In several televised interviews he gave over the last few days, Lara said that the incoming government will not negotiate with criminal groups, but added that if the work of mediators like Colindres and Mijango reduces the violence, his ministry will not get in their way.
In an interview with El Faro in July 2012, Lara urged the governmento of outgoing President Mauricio Funes to "stop acting lukewarm" about the truce.
"The government should have recognized that what it was doing wasn't a bad thing," he said at the time about President Funes' constant refusal to admit that he supported the strategy of dialogues with the gangs.
Perdomo's turn against the process, meanwhile, has a cruel irony to it. He arrived at the security ministry at the end of May 2013, after his time as the director of the State Intelligence Body (Organismo de Inteligencia del Estado - OIE), a part of the security cabinet that was directed at the time by Munguia Payes. During that time he played an active role in Munguia's strategy to foster dialogue with the gangs. It was in fact Perdomo's supposed interest in continuing this process that drove Munguia Payes and President Funes to appoint him to his new position.
When he took the reins as security minister, the average daily homicide rate during the first months of 2013 was 5.57. His management, however, reversed what was then a clear downward trend in killings: the 2,983 murders committed between June 2013 and May 23, 2014 amount to an average of 8.38 murders a day during Perdomo's time in office. (See police statistics for 2012 and 2013 homicides below. Source: El Salvador Police)
This trend has gotten worse in recent months. So far in 2014 the daily average is 9.48 homicides, and in May, the average was even higher with a level -- at 12.4 a day -- not unlike that seen before the truce. In 2011, the year before the truce, the average at the end of the year was 12 homicides a day, and in January and February of 2012, this number rose to 13.8.
Friday night, in a phone interview with Channel 12, the minister claimed that the homicides on May 23 were part of a plan "intended to create instability in the country," and attempted to defend the successes of his security strategy, highlighting the detention of "more than 15,300 people" this year. Asked about the climate of fear generated by the homicides on May 23, he assured the public that the authorities had "sufficient capacity to protect the population."