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03/01/2014 | Mass Graves Burying the Truth about El Salvador Gang Truce

Steven Dudley

Homicide levels, and more recently, clandestine mass graves, are driving the debate about the success or failure of the gang truce in El Salvador, but they are also obscuring some important truths about why the truce is steadily eroding and why its end has become almost inevitable.


The latest mass graves unearthed are some of the worst this country has seen since the civil war. As many as 44 bodies have been found in Colon province, according to La Prensa Grafica. The head of the Office of Forensic Medicine (Instituto de Medicina Legal - IML) told the newspaper that he feared there may be many more. And the Attorney General’s Office confirmed this, telling InSight Crime that there may be as many as eight more graves.

The data coming from the police also seems to be in line with this fear. Disappearances doubled in 2013, compared to 2012. To make things worse, there is a steady, upward creep in homicide levels.

The truce, and the little political support it has left, are closely tied to these homicides, which did a remarkable nosedive following the signing of the agreement between the country’s two most notable gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18, in March 2012.

The fear, and perhaps the reality, is that if they return even close to pre-truce levels, of between 12 and 14 homicides a day, that the process is officially over, according to one of the architects of the truce, Raul Mijango.

“That day the process would have failed,” Mijango told El Faro. “Because I would feel that we no longer had anything to do about it, because I would see that as the gangs losing the will they expressed when we began this process.”

That day seems to be rapidly approaching. Even long time proponents of the truce, such as the journalist Paolo Luers, seems frustrated at the fissures appearing amongst the gangs, within the gangs, and between the gangs and the communities they pretend to suffer alongside.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are two big reasons given for this upward creep in murders and the emergence of the mass graves. The first is that the gang leadership can no longer hold their mid-level commanders in check and that fighting has renewed between, and, perhaps, within these gangs. The second reason is that the gangs have never really had a truce; that they are using this opportunity to strengthen their political hand and their criminal enterprises.

And while these are certainly important points to consider (and ones that InSight Crime has considered at length over the course of the truce), there are others that have been cloaked over by our almost singular focus on homicide levels, and now mass graves. What’s more, this focus has essentially created a self-fulfilling prophecy that the truce will end.

At its best, the truce is a window of opportunity, but one that might not come along again for a long time. These two gangs have shown they are consolidated and disciplined enough to reduce violence and shift emphasis towards where the debate in El Salvador needs to be: on the lack of social, economic and educational opportunity in the country (and indeed the region) that has played a role in their growth.

They have not, as far as we know, asked for clemency or amnesty. They have spent months talking to each other, family members, gang leaders in other countries, government officials, politicians, journalists and multilateral representatives about what it may take to integrate gang-affected youth -- which could reach into the hundreds of thousands -- into society.   

There are some who have long seen the truce this way, chief among them the Organization of American States’ (OAS) appointed representative in the talks, Adam Blackwell. While Blackwell can come across as naive (and I have had my public discrepancies with him), he has a fairly realistic approach to the truce: it is the best opportunity to lower the levels of violence. As he rightfully asks, what else has worked?

The truce architects -- Mijango, the ex-guerrilla turned security advisor, David Munguia Payes, the ex-security minister and current Defense Minister, and the Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres, who plays the role of chief legitmate promotor -- seem to be coming from the same place as Blackwell is now, even if they might not have started there (for the purposes of this article, let’s leave aside the question of individual political ambitions).  

Their problem is that none of them has the political capital to pull in the needed players to make this feel real enough for the gang leaders or their mid-level commanders any more. Mijango and Munguia Payes have been sidelined; Colindres is a second tier player in the Church hierarchy; the OAS is a weak institution with little credibility. And it is that lack of legitimacy that is contributing to the steady erosion of the truce and making its end a fait accompli.

Those players are, in order of importance: the El Salvador President; the El Salvador Catholic Church; the United States Government.

President Mauricio Funes’ has never embraced the truce and not rejected it either. This dance has been infuriating for those close to the talks who understand that without him, there is little chance of lining up social, economic and educational assistance for gang-ridden communities.

This position has also made the process opaque and exclusive, leaving out critical voices and actors who might have lent it more credibility.

The irony is that the president cannot have it both ways: taking credit when murder rates drop, then running away (and appointing a security minister, and supporting an attorney general, who are all but openly sabotaging the truce) when violence creeps up again. His legacy will be, in part, based on the results of the truce, whether he likes it or not.

Even worse, Funes’ tepid stance is making it impossible to “institutionalize” the process. El Salvador is the midst of a tight presidential election this spring, and the candidates are rightfully running away from this unpopular pact amongst criminal groups.

But if the new president did want to continue the process, through what institution would he channel his efforts? Who would be the interlocutor? What credibility would that person or institution have if it did not have months of formal and informal contacts, talks and interactions with the gang leaders?

The Catholic Church has played a similarly ambiguous role. Top Church officials rejected overtures by Mijango at the beginning of the process, fearing the Church was being used as a rubber stamp of legitimacy. And, to a large degree, that sensation was justified when the architects chose Colindres, the military chaplain, to intervene in the talks.

However, that was almost two years ago and the top officials, chief among Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, are still acting like they were slighted and have been slamming the process. The Bishop’s Conference needs to demand a seat at the table, even if it does not like the fact that a second tier bishop has gotten all the public attention thus far and appears to be the only one in the Church who believes all avenues towards peace need to be explored, regardless of possible pitfalls.

What’s more, the truce needs the Church, not one bishop. The Church offers infrastructure, working programs, access to communities and will lend the process a jolt of legitimacy. Without the Catholic Church hierarchy, public support for a negotiated solution will be impossible.

Finally, the United States government has played a critical role in keeping the truce marginalized. Embracing the truce is a slippery slope, to be sure. The gangs have victimized thousands and recognition of this sort has bolstered more than one criminal group, helping it rise in power rather than diminishing or integrating it into more legal channels. And I am not suggesting it should take a strong, public position.

But backchannels are available and could give the Presidency the confidence it needs to step up and accept a stronger role and invest some money in these faltering communities, as well as the business community, to provide the push needed to create economic programs. In addition, it is hypocritical to stand aside completely, especially when gang truces have happened in Los Angeles and other cities in the United States, and the US government is so strongly supporting Colombia’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

This is not about being naive about who the gangs are and what they did. Gang truces are nearly impossible to sustain, and this one carries more baggage than most. There need to be clear rules about what this truce is and what it is not, and consequences for those who choose to disregard those rules.

However, there also needs to be a greater recognition that options are limited and opportunities are scarce. The truce is not perfect, but this is an opportunity that may not come again. (Estados Unidos)


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