Central America’s Gang Wars: A Truce Leads to an Unusual Peace

How a truce between El Salvador's most feared gangs is offering a glimmer of hope for the violence-plagued region

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Jose CABEZAS / AFP / Getty Images

Masked gang members hand over weapons during a symbolic act for peace at Gerardo Barrios Square in San Salvador, El Salvador, on July 12, 2012

The northern expanse of Central America is the most violent place on earth. Honduras and El Salvador, in particular, are plagued with the highest murder rates in the world, ranking 1 and 2, respectively, according to the U.N., a consequence of both a legacy of brutal civil wars and two decades of gang warfare.

It’s no wonder, then, that crime experts scoffed when El Salvador’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18, announced a truce on March 9. The Salvadoran public, weary of a commanding gang presence, also cocked a cynical brow. Since then, almost 160 days later, the truce holds firm. The country’s daily homicide rate has plummeted by nearly 70%.

The gangs’ seeming willingness to bend their swords into plowshares have turned heads. Besides the steep drop in murder rates — from 14 homicides daily to four — the nation’s financial market has received the “peace accord” with open arms. In July, the truce was credited with sparking a rally in government debt, as yields on Salvadoran dollar bonds fell to the lowest level in a year.

(PHOTOS: The Gangs of El Salvador)

Impressed by this unusual blossoming of peace, José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, landed in the Salvadoran capital in mid-July to verify the truce and back further negotiations. During Insulza’s stay, gang leaders announced a partial disarmament and promised further firearm hand-ins, touting their commitment to “social peace” in the region and presenting the secretary general with a plan for gang reintegration.

Gang members presented the same proposal to the Salvadoran government, via chief truce mediator Raúl Mijango, weeks before Insulza’s visit. “Our proposal focuses on how to socially reintegrate active gang members. We suggest the implementation of grants and training programs, among other things,” says Mijango, who estimates that roughly 1,250 lives have been spared due to the truce. “But a major roadblock to lasting peace is the skepticism from the Salvadoran society,” adds Mijango. “And that, in part, explains why the government has been so slow to act.”

The Salvadoran government, meanwhile, has kept its distance from the truce. Both President Mauricio Funes and David Munguía Payés, the Minister of Public Security, have denied any role in the peace agreement, although Payés met with Honduran and Guatemalan ministers in May to discuss the subject. And critics say the government has so far resisted calls to develop a long-term antigang strategy that focuses on violence prevention and rehabilitation.

Payés, nonetheless, told TIME that the government is coordinating its resources to target the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods, where homicides are most prevalent. He is convinced that the government cannot solve the nation’s gang problem alone, adding that the Catholic church and civil society, and even the international community, must play a role.

(MORE: Peace Through Security: What Does Central America’s Crime Crisis Call For?)

“The President has called on the country to unify around prevention so that all resources are available to give gang members more opportunities, especially by creating jobs within communities,” says Payés. “We also think that former gang members could form part of this effort, so that they not only benefit but that they help us administer and develop antigang programs.”

Both MS-13 and Barrio 18 are American creations formed in Southern California by Central American civil-war refugees, initially as protection squads to ward against other prison and street gangs. Eventually, tens of thousands of gang members were deported by the U.S. to their home countries in the late 1990s, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act allowed authorities to expel green-card holders. Today, roughly 9,000 members of both gangs are incarcerated in El Salvador, and an estimated 62,000 members flourish outside prison walls in a country of 6.1 million people, according to figures from El Salvador’s Public Security Ministry.

With this intracontinental legacy in mind, an 11-member delegation of U.S.-based gang-prevention specialists visited El Salvador in July, offering to help sustain the peace effort by sharing successful gang-prevention models employed in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The group, currently forming a report it hopes will help El Salvador sustain peace and serve as a model for other nations, stresses that there must be a concerted effort to reintegrate gang members into society.

But that’s a tall order, critics say, in a country still feeling the effects of a brutal 12-year civil war. Twenty years of intense gang clashes and limited economic development have only made matters worse. “The governmental institutions and social prevention institutions that help keep crimes down are not present in El Salvador, so they will not be able to keep extreme violence down in the long term,” says Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert in international crime and a senior research fellow at Columbia University.

(MORE: Why Obama Is Placing His Hopes on El Salvador)

Mexican drug cartels also represent a high hurdle to a long-term peace effort. Guatemalan authorities recently admitted that the fearsome Mexican cartel Los Zetas has recruited members of MS-13 to help with their drug operations in the isthmus. In return, Zetas members, some of whom are former Mexican commandos, are training members of MS-13 in Mexican paramilitary camps, according to reports. And there is increasing evidence that MS-13 members in El Salvador and Honduras are also supporting Zetas and Sinaloa cartel activity in the region.

Despite these constant threats, MS-13 and Barrio 18 remain committed to the truce. Since announcing their initial accord, gang leaders have vowed to stop recruiting members at Salvadoran schools, a promise that still holds. And MS-13 and Barrio 18 leaders from Honduras and Guatemala recently visited El Salvador in an effort to replicate the truce in their countries.

The U.S. delegation that recently left El Salvador did so with a genuine sense of hope. “I think gang members have a very high level of commitment to peace, with no money, no resources,” says Luis Rodriguez, a member of the delegation and author of the 1993 memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. “I was impressed by how much has been done with very little.”