By: Michael Lohmuller, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
The June 1 inauguration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla combatant, as president of El Salvador was undoubtedly a historic moment for the Central American nation. Yet persistent insecurity and institutional corruption, as well as a languishing truce between the nation’s two major gangs, risks seeing the country descend into a pernicious new era of crime—characterized by increasingly sophisticated organized criminal activity.
During his inauguration speech in San Salvador, Cerén promised the nation that “security, employment, and education” would be top priorities of his administration, calling for an initial guarantee of citizens’ security to ensure such development. Yet in regards to one of the largest security issues looming for his government—the truce between the MS-13 and Barrio-18 street gangs, or maras— Cerén remained largely ambiguous. On June 10, however, Benito Lara—Cerén’s Minister of Justice and Security—announced that the truce would not form part of the administration’s security policy, and reaffirmed previous commitments to use “all legal instruments of the state” in order to combat crime and violence.
Yet, despite comments from administration officials rejecting the truce, few details have been given regarding the administration’s short- and long-term security objectives. Murders and extortions in El Salvador have been on the rise, reversing earlier gains made towards violence reduction that was seen during the truce. This worrisome trend demands immediate action while a sustainable, long-term solution is formed. Despite its deterioration, the truce—which has routinely been criticized for its opacity and exclusiveness—still presents an opportunity for El Salvador to make significant gains towards improving citizen security. Instead of flat-out rejecting the truce, the Cerén administration should take advantage of the space the truce has created. To do this, the government should warily enable the process in the short-term, with the aim of keeping levels of violence under control, while simultaneously instituting reforms and programs aimed at dismantling criminal organizations and ensuring citizen security over the long-term.
Worsening Violence & Insecurity
The United Nations reports that El Salvador currently has a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000 people, down from 71 per 100,000 in 2009, which still makes it the fourth most violent country in the world. The decline in murders was due in large part to the commencement of a gangland truce between the rival MS-13 and Barrio-18 maras enacted in March 2012. Following the truce’s implementation, homicides in the country dropped dramatically from around 14 to six per day for almost a year. Unfortunately, the downward trend began to reverse itself after Ricardo Perdomo became the Minister of Security in May 2013. Since then, almost 3,000 homicides have occurred, which equates to an average of more than eight murders per day.
Violence has been especially bloody during the first half of 2014, with El Salvador experiencing nearly 400 more homicides from January to April this year when compared to the same period in 2013. So far, in 2014, the homicide rate has averaged over nine per day. May was particularly violent, seeing an increase to 12 murders per day; Friday May 23 alone registered 30 homicides, starting a weekend in which more than 80 people violently lost their lives. These figures are nearing pre-truce levels. 2011 registered an average of 12 homicides daily, and January and February of 2012—the months immediately preceding the truce—averaged 13.8.
In light of this recent escalation in violence, the gang truce is now generally considered to be disintegrating, or already undone, with critics and proponents of the truce launching accusations back and forth. Raúl Mijango and Fabio Colindres, the truce’s mediators, and Paolo Luers, a spokesman for the truce’s negotiators, blame the surge in brutality on the Mauricio Funes administration (2009-2014). Mijango, Colindres, and Luers accuse Funes of withdrawing support when it became politically untenable for his political party, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), leading up to the presidential election. They have also criticized Security Minister Perdomo for impeding the truce’s mediation process, including the arrest of several of the gangs’ spokesmen. Conversely, Perdomo has said a rise in homicides is a method for pressuring the Cerén government into supporting the truce. Before leaving office, Funes proclaimed that the truce had failed, and blamed much of the unrestrained violence on a turf war between two competing factions of the Barrio-18 gang, Los Revolucionarios and Los Sureños, claiming the latter group are responsible for attacks on the police.
Perceptions of La Tregua
These differing opinions represent two general schools of thought regarding the truce. The first sees it as a means for the gangs to strengthen their political and operational positions as a sophisticated narco-criminal-political movement. The second explanation portrays the truce as a way to reintegrate gang members into society via social and economic programs, while also seeking to lower overall levels of violence.
The first camp includes the likes of Perdomo, who has said the gangs are using the truce to form ties with transnational drug traffickers, particularly the Mexican cartel Los Zetas. Perdomo claims the truce has resulted in “a mutation of the gangs toward a drug-trafficking structure.” Carlos Ponce, a Salvadoran criminologist and former advisor to the National Civil Police (PNC) and Attorney General’s Office (FGR), said the gang leadership has been using the truce to modify and develop their operations, becoming “more sophisticated, stronger and more dangerous criminal organizations.” Ponce says the gangs are also now attempting to disrupt investigations by infiltrating El Salvador’s security forces, and are trying to exert greater territorial control. He added that the porous borders of Central America’s Northern Triangle—which includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – enable the gangs to move freely.
Opinions or beliefs of the gangs’ motives aside, there is enough evidence to suggest they are indeed consolidating their power structures and taking on an increasingly sophisticated range of criminal activities. Some mara members are working with transnational drug traffickers by protecting drug shipments, conducting low-level assassinations, and receiving military-style training. Héctor Mendoza Cordero—the PNC Deputy Director of Investigations—observed that from January to March of this year, 334 gang members have been arrested on drug-related charges. In 2013, the PNC’s Anti-Drug Division arrested 1,036 gang members on drug-related charges, compared to just 590 in 2012. The maras have also increased their weapons trafficking, and are able to obtain military-grade weapons from neighboring countries or from corrupt or coerced elements of El Salvador’s security forces. Extortion of local residents and businesses was also never included in the truce’s terms and has continued largely unabated, undermining political and popular support for the truce.
The second opposing perspective of the truce portrays it as offering a chance to institute social and economic programs intended to help reintegrate gang members into society, while also reducing levels of violence. Paolo Luers feels this is still possible, saying the gangs remain committed to the truce and that it has not yet come undone. Instead, Luers says, “what’s in crisis is the government’s relationship with the truce,” warning that “if the next government comes in with the same attitude they could lose everything at any moment. And that doesn’t mean that the gangs are going to return to killing each other. That means they are going to confront the state.” Raúl Mijango, one of the truce’s mediators, also recently said the truce is still alive. He stressed the truce was between the rival gangs, and that the government did not have (nor needed to have) an agreement with either side. Regardless, he hopes the new government will facilitate the work of the mediators and create an environment conducive for reducing violence.
Additionally, it is important not to overestimate the coherence of the maras’ organizational structures or ability to coordinate activities. The maras are hierarchical organizations, which has allowed gang leadership to command lower-ranking members to comply with the truce. Yet the gangs also maintain complex horizontal relationships among various cliqas, or cliques, whose local operations are largely independent of any centralized authority. Howard Cotto, head of El Salvador’s National Anti-Drug Commission, notes that each clique has significant autonomy in how it generates income and manages its resources.
It is also important to keep in mind the size of the gang problem in El Salvador and neighboring countries. A report from December 2011 by the PNC estimated that in El Salvador alone 9,000 gang members were in prison, with another 27,000 on the streets. Given similar levels of gang activity in Honduras and Guatemala, total gang membership in Central America’s northern triangle has been estimated at over 100,000. Some estimates have even placed gang affiliation in El Salvador—which has a population of around 6.5 million—at over 450,000. In any event, while such numbers can be considered unrealistic, gang membership in El Salvador likely numbers in the tens of thousands. The main takeaway here is that the gangs’ structural attributes may actually serve as an impediment to their wholesale conversion into powerful narco-gangs. Instead, various sub-groups are more likely to establish alliances with foreign cartels and engage in transnational drug trafficking.
Policy Moving Forward
In his June 10 remarks, Cerén called for the creation of a “National System of Citizen Security,” which he indicated would be under his control. The Minister of Justice and Security, Benito Lara, also said one of the administration’s first actions will be to deploy more police to areas with a heavy gang presence. Officials have said the security policy is simple, in that they “are going to develop all that is within our power to combat extortions, homicides, and other types of crimes.” Yet, while few details regarding the specifics of such actions have been given, Lara said they will be based on a policy he called “Justice, Security, and Coexistence.” This, he said, will include elements of prevention, repression, attention to victims, and the strengthening of the nation’s basic institutions. The use of force will also be “the last resort and not an immediate solution to social conflicts.”
There are numerous factors contributing to the violence that El Salvador is today experiencing. Cerén said his administration would implement an integrated focus, adopting a multidimensional and inter-institutional approach to implementing policy aimed at confronting the problem of violence and delinquency. The truce, however, will not form part of the administration’s security policy. Nonetheless, Lara said that if the gangs “came to an agreement between themselves … we will not interfere.” Lara added that this is not to be taken as meaning the government will integrate the truce as part as its policy.
By itself, the truce must been seen as an inadequate response to public insecurity. In effect, it largely acted as a means for the Funes administration to give the impression it was doing something to curb widespread insecurity, acting as a stopgap measure following the failure of harsh mano dura (iron-fist) anti-crime policies enacted under President Francisco Flores Pérez (1999-2004). While the truce has not solved the nation’s problem of insecurity, it has opened a window of opportunity for the government to begin putting in place programs and structures that could augment the presence of institutions in high-risk areas and improve the lives of citizens. Yet the Salvadoran government must not lose sight of containing and dismantling criminal structures in the country, especially given rising violence and disconcerting evidence of the maras evolution and links to Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking networks.
This calls for a dual-approach by the Cerén administration, with an overall goal of violence reduction and restoration of citizen security. In the short-term, this may entail further negotiating with the gangs for a new truce, with the aim of halting and reversing increasing levels of violence. Accompanying this should indeed be an increased presence of law enforcement agencies in neighborhoods that remain under control of the maras, but this should not entail a reversion to failed mano dura policies. The best-case scenario in the short-term would be to create an atmosphere of tranquility so that Cerén’s administration can focus on issues such as institutional reforms and combating corruption, which exacerbate and compound the problems of gang violence and impunity. While engaging with gang leaders in the short-term is not an ideal solution, it may help put the necessary conditions in place to work towards long-term peace and security, something that the Salvadoran people deserve but have not enjoyed for several decades.
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