The government of El Salvador now admits that the non-aggression pact between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 was the result of negotiations carefully planned and managed by the Ministry of Public Security and closely overseen by President Mauricio Funes, as El Faro reports. 

Six months after the truce between Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 took effect, the architects of this process decided to tell El Faro a story very different from the official accounts that had been offered previously regarding this experiment. The ex-guerrilla and ex-congressman Raul Mijango, Monsignor Fabio Colindres, and the Minister of Security and Justice, David Munguia Payes, today describe a strategy that was developed from the very first moment in the ministerial office, under the explicit authorization of the president of the republic, Mauricio Funes.

At first [the government assured the public that the reduction in homicides was not related to the transfer of 30 leaders of the two gangs, and that the reduction in violence is a gesture offered to society by these organizations in exchange for nothing. But now it has been revealed that since the very beginning there was a list of “demands” the gangs made in exchange for not killing.

The two negotiators, Mijando and Colindres, now affirm that the first time they set foot inside Zacatecoluca maximum security prison was on February 9…Mijango says the first dialogue meeting was just with leaders from MS-13. Colindres remembers, “we were surprised that they knew who we were, they said to me, you’re the military bishop, and to Raul they said, you’re the ex-guerrilla and ex-congressman.”

In the following days, the mediators say they had individual talks with the three factions of Barrio 18. Since 2006, the gang has been divided due to internal struggles for control, derived from two large, deathly opposed groups, calling themselves “southerners” and “revolutionaries.” The rupture also produced a third group, consisting of ex-leaders who were marginalized by the split.

Mijango says that he understood the challenges that negotiating with a divided gang posed for their plan. “For me, encountering a divided Barrio 18 represented a potential flaw in our agreement, and it was important that they took into consideration that if the process was to be consistent and believable they had to present themselves like one single block, I told them: if you stand before MS-13 [divided] that’s going to make them lose confidence in you, you have to present yourself in numbers and that it,” he explains.

Borromero Henriquez, one of the leaders and spokesmen of MS-13, and Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, of Barrio 18, have told El Faro that they’ve been attempting to engage in some process of dialogue for at least five years, but that previous governments hadn’t been similarly inclined. Both Barrio 18 and MS-13 confirmed that they participated in formal negotiations with Antonio Saca’s government, but that those had fallen apart.

Like all the sessions, the first began with a prayer led by Colindres; later lunch was served and Mijango exhorted the gang members present to forget about [a fight from that morning] and continue the process, the objective of which was to reduce homicides in the country.

During a break, [MS-13 leader] El Diablito stood up and started to walk over to the other end of the table where the Barrio 18 delegation was sitting. He went straight to Carlos Lojico Lechuga, “Viejo Lin,” who also stood up…Both leaders shook hands and started to talk. Soon the other member of MS-13 imitated the gesture and the rival gang members started chatting. The mediators got up from their chairs and headed to a corner so as not to disturb the unprecedented meeting.

This session broke the ice between old enemies, and ended with them taking pictures with the mediators and in groups that combined both gangs. “We had achieved the most important part,” Mijango remembers.

On February 24 they met once again to draw up an initial rough draft of the agreement and they were given the time to consult with the other gang members incarcerated in Zacatecoluca. On the 29 they reached a consensus on a brief handwritten document with six basic points that agreed to a “non aggression pact” during a period of three months “that would be extended pending a positive evaluation of the process  and the completion of the agreement by each of the parties.” The document expresses the will of the “delegations of representatives” of MS-13  and  Barrio 18 to enter into the process of dialogue.

The document does not detail what exactly the gangs demanded, but Mijango now explains that those initial demands were the same that were later expressed in what came to be known as the “Outeline for the Pursuit of Peace,” which the gang members presented to the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS). The demands included the repeal of the Gang Prohibition Act, the return of the army to the barracks, the end of police operations in territory controlled by the gangs, the repeal of a law which provides benefits in exchange for information about people with criminal ties, and a series of improvements in prisoners’ quality of life.

Mijango says [the document had] an additional point: the process, the actors, and the agreements must remain absolutely secret until sustainable results can be demonstrated.

Until [the prisoner transfer], there had been an average of 13.6 homicides per day in March. Saturday the 10, one day after the transfer of the gang members, there were ten murders. The next day, there were two. The next there were three, the next there were five…In four days the leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 had demonstrated the powerful control they exhibited, their capacity not just to kill but to achieve something much more difficult: to tame and contain their gang members. And they had given the first signal of their will to honor the pact. The homicide rate in El Salvador had fallen to a level that remains stable six months later.

This article has been translated and re-published with the authors’ permission. It can be read in its original Spanish at El Faro’s Sala Negra.

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