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.

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.