Another small step forward in El Salvador

phoca_thumb_l_foro6 President Funes

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

Earlier this month, leaders of the violent street gangs of El Salvador, or maras, agreed to create safe havens (or ‘sanctuary cities’) in which they would cease to operate. This plan to stay out of ten designated municipalities, under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, involves five street gangs, among them the two largest – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Those two groups’ ceasefire in March this year significantly reduced the number of homicides in El Salvador – from 14 to five a day, the authorities say.

Justice and Security Minister Gen David Munguia Payes has welcomed the ‘sanctuary cities’ plan. When the retired army general was appointed to the role a little more than a year ago, there were widespread fears that he would step up the ‘iron fist’ (or mano dura) approach towards criminal gangs. Instead, Munguia Payes appears to have turned into a great supporter of a negotiated truce.

Although there is a large gap between agreeing to cease criminal activity and actually doing so, this month’s announcement is an important landmark for security policies in Central America. El Salvador’s security forces were previously unable to turn the tide of rising gang violence, which in 2010 reached 71 murders per 100,000, putting the country among the world’s most dangerous. But developments this year demonstrate how political negotiation with criminal and other groups can make a difference.

Some opponents of the deal struck in March with the maras have called it a dangerous concession to those involved in numerous brutal crimes. While gangs have promised not to extort money from small businesses under the truce, these critics say, they have turned their attention to larger targets. Such growing criminal sophistication is a particular risk given that ‘sanctuary cities’ will safeguard only a small proportion of the country.

Others warn that the maras now have political sway over a government unwilling to risk a return to higher levels of violence. As the gangs turn their attention to political influence, they might back certain candidates ‘in exchange for protection and the ability to dictate parts of the candidate’s agenda’.

Truce violations are often reported and there is uncertainty about how much overall criminality has really been reduced; disappearances are on the increase, for example. However, one thing that the March truce with the maras demonstrates is that these groups are not just a loose network of street thugs, but that they have a significant element of vertical organisation and a clear chain of command. Thousands of the maras’ leaders have been held in jail for years. Yet it’s clear that even from prison the leadership has some control and is able to produce tangible changes in the behaviour of many local ‘cliques’.

This month’s agreement to create safe zones further shows that the maras can be partners in a formal peace process. Their talks with the Salvadoran government have come to resemble negotiations with non-state armed groups, including a call for demobilisation and reintegration put forward by the maras themselves. A great deal of attention has been paid – especially by the truce’s critics – to the transfer of senior mara leaders from maximum-security to other prisons as part of the deal.

While that involves some risks, especially because the leaders reportedly have more communication links to the outside world, many mara leaders have strongly pressed for jobs schemes to help properly reintegrate gang members into society. ‘This is no longer a truce. The fundamental objective of this process is to achieve a definitive pacification,’ said one senior member of Barrio 18 last October.

Although the government insists that none of its officials were involved in talks with the maras, it is no longer maintaining such a distance from the truce. In May, for example, President Mauricio Funes (pictured abovemet with Salvadoran business leaders to request their support for job programmes focused on gang members ‘in rehabilitation’.

Away from the peace process and the ‘sanctuary cities’, the Salvadoran police – like their counterparts in Guatemala and Honduras – are increasingly concerned about the growing criminal organisation of some of the maras, particularly the MS-13. Some members of this gang have reportedly moved into drug trafficking; some have reportedly trained with the most violent Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas. In October the United States government designated the MS-13 as a transnational criminal organisation subject to US sanctions.

Nevertheless, reaching a stable agreement with the mara leadership, including the MS-13, would free up more resources for the government to go against those factions involved in drug trafficking. The Salvadoran government has already said it is ready to bring back mano dura policies if it believes the maras are being deceitful about their intentions.

For now, however, the Salvadoran government seems determined to progress with the negotiations. President Funes, boosted by higher approval ratings, has actively defended the truce. Given that the maras have been so far able to exert some control over their rank and file, and to thereby reduce the number of homicides, the government has little incentive to turn back. Not talking to the gangs will not reduce their organisational capacity, in any case.

The greatest challenge now will be to monitor the continued capacity of imprisoned mara leaders to maintain and expand their control over their mareros (members). Their commitment to suspend criminal activity in designated cities seems to indicate that they are confident in their ability to do this. This year was the beta test that revealed some interesting facts for policymakers and pundits. The next phase is likely to prove even more challenging.


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