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Calling a Truce in El Salvador

Moreover, the evidence from Belize suggests that gang truces can easily unravel. Last year, the government in Belmopan brokered a peace between the maras. Initially, it proved quite successful, as the national homicide rate declined substantially. “Between September and March Belize averaged seven murders a month, half the rate for the previous six months,” notes The Economist. “In April, however, two gang leaders were killed, sparking a wave of reprisals. The month saw 21 murders, the most in over two years.”

On the other hand, the Salvadoran truce has given President Funes and other officials an historic opportunity to build credible and capable civilian legal institutions. As Rachel Schwartz of the Inter-American Dialogue has written, “It is difficult to imagine how Central American governments might strengthen the rule of law without a halt in the killings.” Indeed, building strong institutions in a poor country amid nonstop gang warfare is virtually impossible. Now that the warfare between the two largest mobs has, at least temporarily, been halted, Salvadoran authorities have a much better chance to construct effective, trustworthy police forces and judicial bodies.

Not surprisingly, officials from Guatemala and Honduras are eager to study the Salvadoran truce and draw lessons for their own violence-plagued countries. Conditions in both of those nations long ago passed the point of crisis. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, a conservative ex-general who was elected in 2011, said of the fight against drug cartels: “If there are no innovations, if we don’t see something truly different than what we have been doing, then this war is on the road to defeat.” (For that matter, in a 2010 report on the security environment in Guatemala, Duke historian Hal Brands observed that “the influence of nonstate criminal actors rivals or exceeds that of the government in up to 40 percent of the country.”) As for Honduras, it now has the highest murder rate on earth, and the cost of crime and violence is equivalent to 9.6 percent of GDP, according to a World Bank analysis.

Again, we should emphasize that gang truces do not represent a realistic long-term solution to Central America’s security woes. Above all, countries such as Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras need to develop stronger, cleaner civilian legal institutions. But high-caliber institutions will not emerge until the violence is reduced to a more manageable level. The truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 made such a reduction possible. Will Salvadoran officials seize the moment?

This article is available in Spanish here.