Salvadoran Gang Truce: Opportunities and Risks

By Héctor Silva, CLALS Research Fellow

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

Despite the general agreement that the truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, has lowered the homicide rate dramatically – from 14 killings a day in 2011 to some 5-6 in 2012 – many serious challenges persist. The truce was brokered by a former guerrilla commander and a Catholic bishop and, after two months of denying a government role, Security Minister General David Munguía Payés acknowledged that his office was the mastermind.  It is now entering a second stage in which six municipalities, ruled by both the governing FMLN and the rightist opposition party ARENA, have pledged to join the initiative. This new stage involves local ad hoc prevention plans aimed at gang members’ families and youth at risk. The truces have become the principal security policy of the Funes administration.

The lack of transparency around the planning and implementation – above all the origin of the initial pact –has fueled skepticism among journalists, politicians and the general public, and polling has not shown wide support for the truce.  The United States has become one of the fiercest critics of the initiative, with its first official reaction a few days after Salvadoran electronic news outlet El Faro revealed details in March 2012 of secret negotiations between the gangs and the Salvadoran intelligence service. U.S. Under Secretary of State María Otero, visiting San Salvador, declared that the gangs must disappear, suggesting disapproval of the appeasement implicit in secret talks, and U.S. law enforcement officials have always been privately skeptical.  The Treasury Department is helping local American police departments attack MS13’s financial networks, which some in San Salvador interpret as a political signal of Washington distancing itself from the truce – an ironic twist given that Munguía Payés was installed largely because of U.S. pressure.  The stakes were raised last week when the State Department issued a warning to travelers to El Salvador, expressing for the first time in writing doubts about the truce.

The Salvadoran state and society face a complex road ahead.  The reduction in the homicide rate is, of course, welcome, and opposition to the second stage of the plan, the municipal sanctuaries, will be muted in a preelectoral year.  (The ARENA candidate for President, Norman Quijano, has remained skeptical but seems likely to jump on the bandwagon.) But with its ambiguous public stance on the truce despite its Security Minister’s political commitment, the Funes administration has not pledged to fund the second stage of the truce, and it seems very unlikely that the United States will be stepping in.  Another factor is that while El Salvador´s security operations are constrained by the truce, other important problems – such as extortion, drug trafficking, impunity and corruption – remain untouched. Furthermore, evidence is slowly emerging that the organized crime rings are using the circumstances to expand their influence and take advantage of their relationship with some of the gangs’ most violent cliques to enhance trafficking routes. Washington’s skepticism about the truce is valid and should be followed up with an emphasis on the underlying causes of El Salvador’s ills.

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  1. There is not a lot of empirical evidence on gang truces, but what evidence does exist suggests they are a bad idea. An evaluation of a gang truce in Los Angeles found that it temporarily lowered homicide but produced a long-term increase in violence. These results are consistent with findings from my own evaluation of a gang truce in Trinidad and Tobago. The evidence suggests that gangs often enter into these truces for instrumental purposes – to curry favor with politicians, to help win elections, to secure contracts in exchange for reducing violence, or to improve their image in the community. While well-intentioned people often think about the crime-reducing benefits of truces, they often fail to think about the “iatrogenic” or crime-increasing effects. Gang truces backfire for many reasons: they increase gang cohesion, they create new opportunities for conflict, they encourage or solidify alliances between gangs, and they temporarily suppress deeply felt resentments and rivalries that do not simply disappear due to the truce.

    The dean of American gang research, Malcolm Klein, concludes that “truces arranged by outsiders have generally been ineffective (or have even backfired)”. The National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC) concludes that gang truces are “rarely successful and are indeed risky… we have found no such lasting truce between gangs anywhere. What we have found are ways for gangs to gain additional power, prestige, and recognition in the process of conning otherwise responsible adults into believing that criminal organizations can rehabilitate themselves.” Kodluboy and Evenrud adopt a similar stance, concluding that although mediation between gangs may “sometimes be necessary to forestall immediate violence or prevent loss of life… such mediation increases the risk of validating the gang as a legitimate social entity, thus buying short-term peace at the price of long-term persistence of the gang.”

    I am nervous to think about the long term consequences of this short-term measure to reduce violence in El Salvador. My strong suspicion is that this truce will provide yet another example of why gang truces are such a bad idea.

    • Alex Wilde

       /  February 7, 2013

      It’s a useful comment, though hardly dispositive. Of course gangs enter truces with their own goals and interests in mind. And sometimes, surely, they don’t get what they want (rather like countries that launch “wars of choice”). I am ignorant of this literature, but are there no such cases known?


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