Representatives of the Catholic Church have opened dialogue with gang leaders in El Salvador, which could point to a wider swath of Church leaders willing to support talks than during the previous gang truce.
At a press conference, Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez confirmed Church leaders have started what he termed an “informal dialogue” with gang leaders in order to find avenues towards peace in the country, reported El Pais. Rosa Chavez stopped short of labeling the new talks as formal negotiations, reported El Mundo.
“Negotiations [with gangs] does not enter into our vocabulary; what enters is the word dialogue,” Rosa Chavez said, reported El Salvador.com.
In late January, the chief negotiator of El Salvador’s previous gang truce Raul Mijango announced the country’s largest street gangs, Barrio 18 and MS13, had struck a new agreement to halt violence. The truce was later confirmed by the gangs themselves, and homicides have dropped.
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Rosa Chavez chose his words carefully because the Catholic Church has been deeply divided over what its involvement in negotiations with gangs should be. In the first truce — which began March 2012 and lasted roughly two years — the Church hierarchy was against direct participation. The priest involved in the negotiations, Bishop Fabio Colindres, did not have the backing of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and in May 2013, the Conference even stated the truce had done nothing to benefit El Salvador’s “honorable and hard-working population.” The Church further distanced itself from the truce in early 2014 as the agreement unraveled amid climbing murder rates.
Rosa Chavez was among the most outspoken critics of the first truce, and although he refused to use the word “negotiations,” his acknowledgment of the Church beginning talks with the gangs suggests more Church leaders may support the current efforts to quell the violence that has made this country one of the most violent on the planet not at war.
Bishop Rosa Chavez’s statements are also noteworthy because the Catholic Church is a hugely important social and political actor in the country, and he is the Church’s representative on El Salvador’s security council, an alliance of government and non-governmental organizations that was created shortly after President Salvador Sanchez Ceren took office in June 2014. Initiating talks with gangs is at odds with the official position of the council, which has to date rejected the possibility of facilitating a new dialogue between the criminals and the government.
President Sanchez Ceren’s administration has also distanced itself from the current truce, although it’s clear the government sees the possible political benefits from lower homicides that could help it in the upcoming March 1 municipal and congressional elections.
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