El Salvador’s gangs, which include the violent and powerful Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), have negotiated a pact with the government to reduce the country’s alarming homicide rate. While the effort is earning some praise as a possible model for other countries, critics believe it will not have a lasting positive impact and the gangs could be morphing into something equally undesirable.
Roughly 110 days have passed since rival drug gangs—MS-13 and Barrio 18—agreed to stop killing one another. In exchange for the truce, jailed leaders were given better prison conditions, including being transferred to lower security facilities where they can interact, being allowed conjugal visits, and other privileges.
Official reports said the country’s homicide rate dropped in that time from approximately 14 per day to only 6 per day.
Douglas Farah of the Center for Strategic & International Studies believes this is only a brief gain.
“But the result is likely to be a short-term drop in activity as gangs morph into political actors. While it may seem like there are fewer bodies in the street now, the overall level of criminality has not abated,” he wrote in a recent report called “The Transformation of El Salvador’s Gangs into Political Actors.”
Farah says gang members he interviewed in the past month told him that they would like to have political power.
These gang members told Farah they were surprised and pleased with the negotiations; meanwhile, their leaders have been figuring out that they can keep their criminal enterprise while having leverage over the government.
Along with Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is entrenched in gang activity, with more than 27,000 gang members active on the streets and 9,000 in prison. The country’s 2010 homicide rate was among the highest in the world at 71 deaths per 100,000.
While the homicide rate has gone down, human rights monitors say disappearances have gone up. There were 876 disappearances since the beginning of the year, with more than 600 taking place since the ceasefire pact went into effect, essentially doubling the number reported during the same period of last year, according to Farah.
Farah notes that the truce has also now become shaky due to “serious splits” in MS-13 because high-ranking leaders did not consult street members ahead of time when considering the pact.
“Given the temporary gains by the government in and the long-term advantages gained by the gangs, the negotiations could have the opposite effect of what the government wanted,” the report states.
If the truce is broken and the murder rate returns to previous levels, then El Salvador’s army will have to crack down on violence ever harder.
Some gang leaders have said that they want a permanent truce with job programs and other forms of assistance.
Barrio 18 leader Oscar Armando Reyes Aguilera said this is their motive behind the truce. “To the Salvadoran people we want to reiterate that we are not paying lip service, but from the heart, we are doing because we want a change for the people and because we want a change for ourselves and our families,” read a statement by the gang leader prepared to commemorate the 100th day of the truce on June 16,
according to El Faro publication.
Originally a gang started by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, MS-13 spread back to El Salvador and neighboring countries and spread its tentacles into other parts of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Its members, who have often been identified by extensive gang tattoos, have developed a reputation for extreme violence.
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