El Salvador’s 100 days of relative peace

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. Photo: Presidency of El Salvador

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Central America’s ‘northern triangle’ has been the most murderous region on earth recently, as discussed in a recent Voices blog post. But there is a growing ray of hope in El Salvador, where street gangs, or maras, have accounted for a significant amount of the violence. An unlikely truce between the two leading maras in March has halved homicide rates. The mechanics of the deal are controversial, and there have been doubts about how long it could last. However yesterday, 100 days into the truce, gang leaders announced they were willing to start negotiating a permanent peace.

It was in March that Salvadoran news website El Faro reported that the government and the Catholic church had mediated a deal between the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18. The leaders of these two groups agreed not to attack each other in exchange for a transfer from maximum-security to standard prisons.

There are 50,000–60,000 gang members in El Salvador, and violence dropped 59% during the first six weeks of the truce. The daily homicide rate fell from 14 in February to five in March. On 14 April, the country experienced a day with no murders, stabbings or beating for the first time in nearly three years. In May, although there was a slightly upswing in violence, both maras made a pledge not to recruit in schools.

Nevertheless, there has been criticism of any efforts to negotiate with such violent groups, and the government’s role in the matter remains unclear. It denied spearheading the truce, saying it only ‘facilitated the logistics’ so that the church could lead the talks.

Leading critic Oscar Luna, head of El Salvador’s Office for Human Rights, has demanded that President Mauricio Funes explain. Luna claims the government has no control over the situation and is at the mercy of the mara leaders’ whims.

The business sector has also been concerned that the gangs have merely been giving retailers and other businesses time to recover, in order to better extort money from them later. Corporate leaders had a meeting in May with President Funes and his security cabinet to discuss reducing youth unemployment and gang recruitment. Plans to tackle joblessness among the young – which at 13.3% is nearly twice the overall rate – have been sitting on the president’s desk for more than a year. At the end of the May meeting, the president of the National Association for Private Enterprise, Jorge Daboub, said there was still no sense that the government was trying to tackle the roots of gang violence.

When offering a permanent truce yesterday, gang leaders said that they wanted the government to offer job programmes or some other sort of aid to gang members.

Instead, El Salvador has continued its mano dura (firm-handed) policies. The army and other security forces have persecuted gang members ever after the signing of the truce, with at least 2,000 mara members arrested between January and late March. President Funes has also appointed two former army generals to key positions in his security team and is pressing for judicial reform to accelerate trials against suspected gang members.

Yet violence in El Salvador was growing before the truce, despite a 57% increase in the number of military personnel since Funes took office in June 2009. Similar security crackdowns are not working in neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala, where the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 continue to operate.

Some call the fragile truce between the Salvadoran maras a ‘mafia’s peace’. Others celebrate the hundreds of lives spared during it. But it is clear that the politics behind this relative peace is not being repeated elsewhere in the region.


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