El Salvador’s gangs have released a new statement promising to reduce violence, but with their top leaders back in a maximum security prison, it is worth asking whether they really have the ability to keep their rank-and-file in line.
The announcement -- supposedly signed by spokesmen for the MS13, Barrio 18, Mao-Mao, and Mirada Locos 13 gangs -- asserts that they will cease attacks as a “gesture of goodwill," reported La Pagina.
“We are giving instructions for our units to stand down,” the statement reads, adding that gang members will work towards “satisfactorily responding to what society hopes of us: less murders, less extortion; and definitely: less violence.” Attacks of all types have apparently been ordered to stop immediately.
The first lines of the statement declare that the commitment to cease killings was “a gift to Monseigneur Romero” -- the Salvadoran Archbishop assassinated in 1980 during the country’s civil war -- and is a sign of “repentance and a request for society’s forgiveness."
The statement also said that Raul Mijango, a mediator for El Salvador's 2012 gang truce, had given the government a 26-point "peace agenda" on behalf of the gangs. Half of these points consist of actions the gangs said they were committed to following, despite not seeing “the same intentions on the part of the government."
The "private" talks between the government and the gangs should be monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the statement said.
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Given the recent transfers of gang leaders to a maximum-security prison, it is unclear how they coordinated the release of this joint statement. This should raise suspicions over who actually produced the document, and if they actually have the clout to compel their fellow gangs members to cooperate.
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Indeed, in January the MS13 and Barrio 18 attempted to resurrect the failed gang truce by signing an agreement to halt violence. This failed to materialize: March was the most violent month El Salvador had seen in a decade. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has said that 30 percent of those murders involved police clashes with gangs.
The government has previously said that restarting dialogue with the gangs is not on their security agenda, and instead has favored a more hardline approach. One top security official even suggested that if more police acted in “legitimate self-defense” and gunned down gang members, it could help pacify the country.
It may be that, in response to this heavy-handed rhetoric and aggressive response, the gangs are seeking respite in a new peace deal. It may also be that amid the skyrocketing violence, the gangs see a new opportunity to pressure the government into talks. Still, especially compared with past press releases credited to the gangs, this most recent one comes off as less assertive -- in a previous statement, the gangs implied they have enough political influence to influence the outcome of the next presidential elections.