Calling a Truce in El Salvador

Over the past few months, something remarkable has happened in El Salvador: The homicide rate has abruptly and dramatically plummeted by 60 percent, thanks to a truce between the country’s two most powerful street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (also known as “MS-13”) and Barrio 18. It is still unclear whether the Salvadoran government played a significant role in brokering the truce. But the swift and sudden drop in murders has caused a stir throughout Central America’s “northern triangle,” which has become the world’s most violent region.

Two questions immediately come to mind: How long will the Salvadoran truce last, and does it offer a practical model that neighboring governments should seek to replicate?

Regarding the first question, Salvadorans are holding their collective breath, desperately hoping that the truce will continue while remaining fearful that it could break down at any moment. We still don’t know what promises (if any) the government made to the gangs, and we still don’t know when (if ever) the gangs will suspend their aggressive extortion activities, which have paralyzed Salvadoran businesses and severely damaged the national economy.

What we do know is that MS-13 and Barrio 18 issued their historic declaration in mid-March, shortly after 30 or so prominent gang members were transferred from the maximum-security Zacatecoluca jail to more lenient facilities. President Mauricio Funes denies that his government made a quid-pro-quo arrangement with the gangs, but he has acknowledged that the prison transfer “facilitated” the subsequent truce. It appears that the key mediator between MS-13 and Barrio 18 was a Catholic bishop named Fabio Colindres, who does work in Salvadoran jails.

Within a month of the peace declaration, El Salvador experienced its first murder-free day since 2009, the year Funes took office. On May 2, the two gangs expanded their truce, agreeing (1) to make all Salvadoran schools “zones of peace” and (2) to cease “all involuntary recruitment of adults and children.” Once again, Bishop Colindres was the crucial intermediary.

Is any of this sustainable? There is good reason to be skeptical. MS-13 and Barrio 18 are transnational organizations involved in a multitude of illicit enterprises. The two maras (as they are known in Central America) cannot reasonably expect the Funes government to ignore their rampant extortion. Promising not to murder other gang members or forcibly recruit new foot soldiers does not -- or at least should not -- give the mafias a de facto license to engage in other illegal behavior. There is a real danger that the truce could weaken the rule of law if Salvadorans believe their government has made overly generous concessions to violent criminals.