El Salvador's gangs have reportedly committed to a new truce, which, if true, is apparently intended to show the government that the gangs exert major influence over the country's violence levels, and that their demands must be taken seriously.
According to Raul Mijango, who helped negotiate El Salvador's previous gang truce in 2012, leaders of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs have committed to halting violence, reported La Prensa Grafica.
Mijango said that he was not involved in the negotiations, and that the gang leaders had come to the agreement amongst themselves, without asking for any concessions from the government. This is in contrast to the 2012 truce, which was supported by the government and the Catholic Church, and involved moving top gang leaders to prisons with better conditions, in exchange for the gangs' commitment to reduce violence.
The new truce was reportedly brokered on January 17. Five days later, police announced that El Salvador had registered its first day without any reported homicides in 2015. Investigative news website El Faro reported that since January 18, El Salvador's daily homicide rate has dropped from 14 a day to 4.6.
The administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has not released a statement reacting to Mijango's assertions, nor has the national police director. The bishop of San Salvador said he did not know anything about the reported truce. However, El Salvador's security minister has previously said he was not opposed to gangs coming to agreements amongst themselves, and that the government would not interfere.
El Salvador's previous gang truce fell apart in mid-2014, amid rising homicide levels, accusations of death squads pursuing suspected gang members, and the arrest of a priest who played a key role in the negotiations.
The announcement of the new reported gang truce follows the government's presentation of its plan to confront violence in El Salvador, without making dialogue with the gangs a focal point, as was the case with the previous administration. It also follows statements by the head of police, in which he said that police officers should use their weapons "against criminals" with "complete confidence," in light of ongoing clashes between security forces and gangs that have left many dead on both sides. Additionally, in a reversal of what was agreed to during the 2012 truce, the government has indicated that it plans to begin moving gang leaders back into high-security prisons.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given the current context in El Salvador, the announcement that gang leaders have agreed to reduce violence among themselves is timely on several levels.
First of all, if the gangs can show that by committing to a truce out of their own initiative, they can halve El Salvador's homicide rate within a week, it is a visible and palpable way for them to exert their political muscle. Using this strategy, the gangs can show authorities that what the gangs decide has far more influence on El Salvador's violence than any government initiative. However, there will undoubtedly be much debate in the coming days over whether El Salvador's homicide rate has really gone down thanks to a reported gang truce, or whether there are other factors involved.
Some of Mijango's other remarks imply that while the gangs have purportedly asked nothing from the government in exchange, there are still expectations that will need to be met, for the truce to continue. "I would love for this to be permanent," he said, according to El Faro, "but it will be difficult if certain conditions of facilitation are not met."
These conditions would presumably involve halting the transfer of gang leaders into maximum security prisons, and investigating the death squads reportedly waging war against the gangs.
Given El Salvador's upcoming congressional and gubernatorial elections in March, this new reported pact looks like a not-so-subtle argument by the gangs that, despite repeated assertions that the government will not negotiate with criminal groups, dialogue is the most viable way forward, and that the country's politicians would do well to keep that in mind. "This is a gesture by the gangs that seeks to show that the only road that will bring immediate and effective results is dialogue," Mijango said.
Should the reported truce hold and homicide remain low, it remains to be seen whether public opinion towards the prospect of more gang negotiations will change. Nevertheless, the government appears quite set on pursuing a policy that doesn't revolve around dialogue with the gangs, including hiring former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a security consultant.