Colombia: Pope Francis Appeals Directly to the People

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Pope in Popemobile with people surrounding him.

Pope Francis in Colombia last week. / Christian Wlaschütz

By appealing directly to the Colombian people to open their hearts to the hard work of forging lasting peace during his visit last week, Pope Francis avoided direct confrontation with opponents of the peace process but put new pressure on them to cease obstructionism and allow full implementation of the accords.  Since the Congress approved the revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in December 2016, there has been important progress on the formal level of the implementation of the peace accords.  The FARC surrendered its weapons and started its transformation from military group to political party of the same name.  However, as the country prepares to enter a new phase – with the launch of transitional justice processes under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission – peace remains a concept that has still not achieved public enthusiasm.  As I have argued previously (here and here), one of the reasons is that common people do not perceive the relevance of the peace process for themselves and lack a sense of participation in it.  The Pope’s five-day visit, concluding last Sunday, seemed intended to address exactly these challenges.

Under the motto “Let’s make the First Step,” Pope Francis emphasized the importance of reconciliation, peace, truth, justice, and the “culture of encounter” on a spiritual level that transcends the struggles of daily politics.  Millions of Colombians, regardless of political affiliation, turned out to hear Francis’s non-partisan message of peace.  In Villavicencio, a center of armed violence during the war, 6,000 victims and former combatants publicly attested to their path from suffering towards active involvement in society.  Having found healing, forgiveness, and repentance, many now work as psychologists, human rights defenders, or social leaders.  Millions around the country watched the event on TV and saw that reconciliation is not an easy path – one without justice or truth – but includes these elements.  In Cartagena, the Pontiff emphasized two other essential components of peace: social justice and human rights.

Francis managed to combine gestures, massive events, and declarations to emphasize Colombia’s opportunity to leave the violent past behind and open a new chapter of history.  His key message – that it is possible to live together in peace – reached many millions.  In encounters with the poor, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, victims of conflict, and people with special needs, he drove home that social inclusion is a prerequisite for real change.  He emphasized that the peace process “is not a process for minorities,” but rather all of society.  Changing the political dynamics around the peace accords will take time, but the Pope has clearly invited detractors to change their attitude and support the process.  One news commentator hinted at the sort of awareness that would require.  Reporting on Francis’s visit to San Francisco, one of the most marginalized sectors of Cartagena, she said, “This is a Cartagena that we do not know. Thanks to this visit we see the other Cartagena.”  Maybe Colombians will also see the “other Colombia” now.

September 14, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

Success of the Implementation of the Peace Accord Depends on Real Participation

By Christian Wlaschütz*

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A march for peace in Colombia after the failure of the October 2016 plebiscite. / Leon Hernandez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The same thing that caused the Colombian government to fail to win the plebiscite on its peace agreement with the FARC in October – a deficient understanding of participation – could complicate implementation of the version of the agreement approved by the Congress last week.  Congressional approval on November 30 is occasion for joy and expectation, but it is also a moment for reflection.  That failure was caused not only by disagreements about political participation and justice issues, but also by the government’s consistently deficient understanding of the meaning of participation in its broader sense, beyond politics, and an over-reliance on the desirability of “peace” in the absence of tangible benefits.  Since negotiations began in 2012, several partial accords on issues such as land reform, political participation, and victims were achieved and publicized.  Unlike the negotiations between the government of former President Uribe and the paramilitary groups a decade ago, there was clarity about the process, the results of the specific negotiations, and the way forward.  President Santos’s decision to submit the final accord to a plebiscite, however, changed the public dynamic significantly and revealed several shortcomings in the government’s strategy regarding communication and participation.

  • Participation has been inadequately understood as a space for the public to be informed and to listen – rather than for the government to listen. Massive public events gave the political elite the opportunity to speak about the process, with only a few moments for the listeners to ask questions.  While many written proposals were submitted to the negotiation process, no comment or feedback was ever given.  This one-way communication did not help the public balance the benefits and costs of the peace process, and there was an enormous gap between the informed, mostly urban circles of academics, organized civil society, and other political and economic actors and the people in the urban and rural peripheries of the country.
  • The distance between elites who negotiated “peace” and the very poor living conditions of many people on the ground transformed peace into an abstract term void of tangible significance. Talk of peace dividends lacked a real connection to people’s everyday experience of corruption, deficient state services, and increasing insecurity.  The high abstention rate in the plebiscite – 63 percent –is clear evidence of the disconnect.
  • Indeed, “peace” has remained a distant objective claimed by many generations of Colombians. Since almost nobody has real experience with what peace is like, how it feels and changes life, the motivation to make deals on things such as justice in exchange was limited.  In contrast, terms such as impunity or privileges for criminals have an authentic meaning based on experience, helping the NO campaign discredit the peace accord.

Despite the Congressional approval, enthusiasm for the peace process has waned in comparison to two months ago, when the first version was solemnly signed in Cartagena.  Even though no plebiscite was legally required on either version, the lack of a second plebiscite has left a bitter taste behind – as if the accord were pushed through despite popular rejection.  Also troubling is a wave of assassinations and threats against civil society leaders.  According to the Jesuit Research Center CINEP, 31 leaders have been killed in the last three months; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counts 57 assassinations in the course of this year.

The legitimacy and success of implementation of the accord will depend on more authentic participatory methods to plan and implement the politically controversial issues of reintegration, land reform, justice, and the creation of a political party by the FARC.  Real participation – with space for exchange, debate, and the certainty of having a stake in the process – would foster shared responsibility for the successful implementation of the accords.  It would also help the people to grasp the benefits of peace and, therefore, the need to make compromises.  The contents of the accord are sufficiently comprehensive to end the armed conflict; whether or not it also helps to transform a structurally unequal society will depend to a great extent on the way participation is defined.  Only with broad participation will the communities protect and support the peace process.

December 6, 2016

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

El Salvador: Dealing with the New Reality of Violence

By Eric Hershberg

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A farm in Morazán, El Salvador, a department that has maintained some sense of normalcy through its strong social organizations. / Cacaopera de Cerca / Flickr / Creative Commons

A surge in violence in El Salvador over the past five-plus years demands a more comprehensive and inclusive strategy than the ongoing Plan El Salvador Seguro.  A rigorous and highly readable study released last month by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social (INCIDE) employs quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate that the pattern of violence in El Salvador has worsened.  Murders increased 66 percent in the 2010-2015 period; the murder rate of 102.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 made it the most violent year in decades.  Multiple-victim murders increased 126 percent in the same period, and murders of women skyrocketed 750 percent – from 40 in 2012 to 340 in 2015.  Gang-on-gang violence has produced a 72 percent increase in deaths, while armed confrontations between gangs and state personnel are growing more frequent.  Kidnappings and disappearance have surged.  For the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has experienced forced displacements, both within the country and to other countries, most notably an unprecedented flow of rural Salvadorans into Nicaragua.

The 2012-2013 truce among the gangs and the government of then-President Mauricio Funes reduced violence somewhat, but INCIDE notes that it also allowed gangs to consolidate their control over territory while government planners failed to address the deeper causes of the violence.  While documenting that Salvador Seguro has had some positive results and won support, the study posits that the current strategy of frontal attack on gangs has also eroded the social and community fabric that represents an essential intangible asset for durable success in reducing violence.  Many communities live in fear of violence from all sides.  The INCIDE report emphasizes that the causes of spiraling violence are complex, deeply rooted, and require integrated responses tailored to specific conditions in different territories.  What is needed, says INCIDE, would be a strategy that:

  • Shuns one-size-fits-all national solutions. The government has failed for years to understand that the drivers of violence and stability are different across territories throughout the country.  INCIDE advocates the creation of a “territorial map” detailing each community’s security situation, the resources it can bring to bear against violence, and what it needs from national-level programs in order to strengthen local communities.
  • Empowers those local communities. A comparison between two locales – in Morazán and Jiquilisco – revealed that the former, which has fewer police and army personnel than the latter, has been able to maintain a more normal way of life because it has strong social organizations and a social commitment to preventing violence through informal vigilance, youth programs, and cooperation with authorities.  Jiquilisco lacks these assets and lives essentially in lock-down mode.

More research and better-targeted territorial strategies are certainly essential, but even INCIDE’s Director, Alexander Segovia (who was a senior aide to President Funes and principal author of the INCIDE study), wouldn’t say they will guarantee success.  In an extensive interview with the on-line magazine Revista Factum, he blamed the failure to stem the violence on the “negligence of the economic, political, and intellectual elites” of the country.  He asserted that El Salvador must “change perspectives – to examine how it’s been dealing with the topic of violence and insecurity, from the design of public policies to the participation of the different actors who make up society.”  Prevailing approaches emphasizing sectoral solutions – strengthening agriculture, industry or tourism in affected areas – have been too piecemeal to bring results.  INCIDE’s research underscores the need for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach tailored to specific local conditions.  Mobilizing and fostering cohesion in communities victimized by the violence may be a lot more difficult, but it is also potentially the most successful means to a solution.

Click here for the full text of INCIDE’s report and here for Director Alexander Segovia’s interview with Revista Factum.

September 26, 2016

Colombia: Peace by Pieces

By Angelika Rettberg*

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Photo Credit: Government of Venezuela / Public Domain.

Despite challenges ahead, the Colombian state’s confrontation with one of the longest active revolutionary groups in the Western Hemisphere appears likely to reach closure by December.  As Colombian writer Héctor Abad has said, the peace agreement preliminary signed on August 24 is long, imprecise, often ambiguous, and tedious – certainly not a piece of entertaining literature – but it is the most eagerly awaited, downloaded, shared, and controversial official document in recent Colombian history.  The signatures of Colombian President Santos and FARC leader “Timochenko” are still pending, as is the result of a national plebiscite, to be held on October 2.

  • Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, defined the agreement as the “best possible” – a lukewarm description that fits well a process that has been rather anti-climactic. President Santos, who started the peace process and staked his reelection (which he barely won) on it two years ago, was more emotional and said, “Today, August 24th, we can say that hope has become reality.”
  • The agreement has already made permanent a cease-fire between the two sides. FARC fighters have begun to gather in the areas in which they will hand in their weapons and await the initiation of transitional justice proceedings.

Even if “yes” wins in the upcoming plebiscite – as surveys now predict – this peace by pieces presents challenges.  The accord has accomplished more than any Colombian process before and, by many normative international and academic standards, has been better designed and more professionally negotiated than any other Colombian accord.  It does not seem, however, to awaken most Colombians’ enthusiasm.  A generalized apathy or, in many cases, open disapproval of the negotiations can be linked to the absence of a sense of conflict-related crisis, especially in urban areas, where there has been a steady decline in battle-related casualties for years.  In addition, as the World Bank and international media have reported, Colombia’s economic performance has been steadily improving.  No longer the Andean problem case, Colombia is now a preferred destination for international investment in Latin America.  The “paradox of plenty, Colombian style” – success in promoting security and investment amid conflict resulting – has ended up eroding support of peace negotiations.

International support for several peace-building tasks will not translate into enormous amounts of desperately needed resources.  FARC demobilization, victims’ reparations, and addressing the needs of the most conflict-affected regions of the country will carry a big price tag for years to come.  Most economic and political resources for implementing the agreements will need to be raised domestically, and local authorities and communities will be increasingly reluctant to prioritize the needs of conflict-related social groups.  In addition, much needed fiscal reform will further affect political support for the government.  A core group of economic elites have backed negotiations unconditionally and have been well represented at the table.  However, the costs and vagaries of the implementation process will strain the support of peace´s crucial allies.  In this context, it will be difficult for any leading candidate to fully endorse the agreements in the upcoming presidential election of 2018.  Considering these limitations, not only the peace agreement, but also the resulting change, may only be “the best possible.”

September 7, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department, Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá.

UNASUR and the Venezuelan Hot Potato

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Ernesto Samper UNASUR

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Venezuelan crisis, which the hemisphere has turned to UNASUR to resolve, could break the South American organization and overshadow its past successes in regional mediation.  UNASUR was created in 2008, amid the proliferation of regional organizations such as ALBA that excluded the United States and Canada, as an inter-governmental mechanism to promote regional autonomy, conflict prevention and resolution, and the coordination of public policies, particularly regarding social issues, security, infrastructure, and energy.  It has been driven by individual presidents’ leadership and managed by high-ranking officials and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, has not shown deep commitment to greater civil society participation.  Among its important successes have been defusing internal conflicts in Bolivia and Ecuador, as well helping reduce tensions between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Colombia and Venezuela.  In years past, the group’s effectiveness raised questions about the OAS’s comparative ability to deal with regional conflicts.

In recent years, however, UNASUR has suffered decline.  As the commodities boom ended, regional economies were hit hard, and internal political factors started to change the political map, undermining leftist governments and enabling the election of center-right governments less committed to the UNASUR vision.  This coincided with the profound decline of Venezuela as it fell into the abyss of hyperinflation, debt, scarcity, criminality, and debilitating political instability.  The Venezuelan opposition’s achievement of a parliamentary majority last December, after 17 years of Chavista hegemony, brought no relief as the government reacted with an all-out effort to block it.  UNASUR, which first sought to foster a dialogue between the government and the opposition in 2013, has repeatedly failed to broker a solution.  In May 2016 the organization turned to three former heads of state – Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Dominican Lionel Fernández, and Panamanian Martín Torrijos – to attempt mediation again, to no avail so far.  The government continues to resist change, and the opposition, in addition to remaining firm in its demands of a recall vote to remove Maduro and the unconditional release of political prisoners, has shown persistent mistrust of UNASUR and its representatives, whom they perceive as allies of the government. Such suspicions may not be unfounded, considering Zapatero’s objections regarding the participation of some relevant opposition leaders in the dialogue process.

For the first time in its almost 10 years of existence, UNASUR faces potential failure in its attempt to solve a strategically important political crisis in the region.  To hold off an initiative by OAS Secretary General Almagro to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the OAS Assembly called on UNASUR and the former presidents to renew mediation efforts yet again last month, but neither Maduro nor the opposition has budged from their fundamental positions.  The situation is, again, stalled.  Indeed, in the context of declarations, extraordinary sessions, initiatives and trips, the commitment to end the crisis in Venezuela still appears quite limited among OAS members, including UNASUR.  Governments supporting dialogue seem most eager to avoid risking valuable political capital both in the domestic and the international spheres.  Neither UNASUR nor the OAS is prepared to handle the Venezuelan hot potato, and both stand to lose credibility for this failure.  But UNASUR’s general lack of leadership and direction in recent years suggests that failure in this crisis, with implications beyond Venezuela’s borders, would be potentially fatal to the organization.  UNASUR, with previous achievements in social, political and regional matters, must now prove that it is still a viable regional mechanism, able to deal collectively with the political turbulence of a changing regional landscape.

July 6, 2016

* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont are members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.

U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

Colombia’s Peace Talks: The End of the Beginning

By Aaron T. Bell

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Recent events suggest that, as peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas resume in Cuba later this month, substantial progress toward an agreement is at hand.  Talks were suspended in November when a Colombian general and two lawyers were kidnapped under circumstances that remain unclear, but cooler heads prevailed and the three were quickly released.  The FARC announced an indefinite unilateral cease-fire in late December and, in the first such act taken by either side, acknowledged their responsibility for a 2002 civilian massacre in the town of Bojayá and asked for forgiveness from victims.  President Juan Manuel Santos has been reluctant to ease military pressure on the guerrillas, but the FARC’s show of good faith led him to call on government negotiators last week to prioritize the arrangement of a bilateral cease-fire.  Santos has encouraged negotiators to accelerate talks so that a public referendum on the peace accords can be held concurrent with October’s local elections.

A final agreement may still be several months off as negotiators work through the complexities of victim compensation and a transitional justice system, but the effects of negotiations are already being felt in Colombia.  Observers from the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos reported the lowest level of violence related to the armed conflict in 30 years during the first three weeks of the FARC’s cease-fire. This news was complemented by reports that Colombia’s murder rate hit a 30-year low in 2014, thanks in part to truces brokered among the country’s largest criminal gangs.  The success of the government’s negotiations with the FARC appears to be spilling over into the armed conflict with the ELN guerrillas as well.  At the beginning of 2015 the ELN announced willingness to enter into peace talks like those with the FARC, and they strongly implied that such talks would lead them to lay down their arms.  A six-point agenda for negotiations was publicly announced this past weekend, and a cease-fire may not be far behind.  In economic terms, an end to insurgent violence may spell much-needed relief for Colombia’s oil industry, a frequent target for guerrilla sabotage over the years, which is now reeling from falling oil prices.  Negotiations have also procured European political and financial support for Colombia.  Beginning this month, the European Union will begin funding a five-year, $86 million program to bolster small-scale producers and reduce rural inequality, and other potential funding may result from a European tour by Santos last fall.  Germany pledged $95 million in loans to follow peace agreements, and the EU and several member nations pledged funding for post-conflict reconstruction projects.

While the Santos government and the FARC appear to be entering the endgame of peace negotiations, the process of resolving the underlying conditions that have fueled decades of conflict in Colombia will be long and difficult.  The FARC was unhappy with the government’s unilateral decision to implement a peace referendum, preferring instead a constituent assembly that would give greater representation to traditionally marginalized groups in Colombian society.  Political inclusion is a substantial concern given both Colombia’s history and the attitude of right-wing opponents of negotiations.  Among the groups gearing up for a substantial run in the October elections is the Centro Democrático, the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, which took Santos to a second round of voting in last summer’s presidential elections.  Uribe claimed recently that the FARC – with Santos’s support – is using the threat of terrorism and the allure of peace to take power through elections in 2018 and even eventually establish a “totalitarian government.”  Land reform is another major concern.  Skewed land distribution has traditionally been a major source of social unrest and has worsened over the last 50 years of fighting.  Amnesty International and Oxfam have identified serious obstacles to resolving the problem and it will be difficult to ensure that large multinationals won’t benefit disproportionately from redistribution schemes.  The government and the guerrillas both deserve praise for their progress, but winning a lasting peace will require continued cooperation in reforming an ingrained system of inequality and exclusion.

January 20, 2015