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El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

The truce between El Salvador's two largest gangs -- the MS-13 and Barrio 18 -- opens up new possibilities in how to deal with the seemingly intractable issue of street gangs. But it also creates new dangers.

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Whether it is sustainable or not, the truce -- which the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 put into place in March 2012 -- has changed the conventional thinking about who the gangs are and what is the best way to handle the most difficult law and order issue in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Put simply, the gangs have stretched these governments to their limits. Gangs run large swathes of urban and semi-urban areas, prisons are overflowing and are largely administered by the gangs, and actions of the gangs may be upgrading to more sophisticated criminal activities.

While it is unpopular among some observers, the gang truce in El Salvador has opened up a possibility that did not exist just a few months ago. What's more, Honduras is already experimenting with a similar pact. Although the ongoing process in Honduras brings more questions than answers, the involvement of high level Church authorities and international mediators gives hope that a similar truce may emerge and help lower what is currently one of the world's highest homicide rates. In Guatemala, similar rumblings of a gang truce have been heard but nothing concrete has emerged.

In this context, it is time to take stock of the positives and the negatives of this truce.

The Positives

1) Less homicides.

Undoubtedly, the greatest benefit of this truce has been the startling drop in homicides. From a murder rate of 72 per 100,000, El Salvador now hovers around 36 per 100,000. There are questions about disappearances and manipulation of murders statistics, but even the most skeptical observers agree that homicides are much lower.

The drop in murders has also helped illuminate the breadth of the gang problem. Prior to the truce, gangs were thought to be responsible for some 10 to 30 percent of the homicides in El Salvador. The new homicide rate gives us an indication of exactly how many are getting killed because of the gang phenomenon.

2) More trust among key stakeholders.

Peace negotiations are about trust. Trust comes from meeting with the adversary, talking through issues and trading one action in the hopes that it will be rewarded by the actions of the other. This has happened in more than one way during this process.

First, the gangs themselves have largely obeyed the orders from their leaders to slow the pace of homicides, which included a large number of attacks on one another. Second, the government moved the gang leaders into medium-security prisons, giving them more access to their families, and their rank-and-file gang members so they could maintain the truce. Third, the gangs and the government have begun a process of developing "peace zones," areas where gangs are supposed to limit criminal activities and the government is supposed to implement social, educational, and job training programs.

3) More emphasis on a soft-side approach.

Prior to the truce, the gang debate centered around how aggressively they should be repressed, and which security institution would be responsible for implementing that strategy. The result was counterproductive: mass incarcerations led to more gang activity, which led to more repression, which led to more incarcerations and so on.

The gang truce has opened a door to talk about what gangs are and how best to integrate them into Salvadoran life. For perhaps the first time, local and federal government bureaucrats, politicians, and functionaries are asking themselves what they need to do to establish effective prevention and rehabilitation programs. They are trying to calculate the costs, they are turning to those who have long worked with at-risk youth, and they are developing programs in conjunction with international donors. This could result in the implementation of a new strategy that could have long-term implications, regardless of the success or failure of this truce.

The Negatives

1) Criminal activity = political capital.

There is a dangerous message being sent to the gangs and other criminal actors: the government can be held hostage with violence and criminal activity. This is why the government has spent so much time trying to distance itself from this truce even when it is clear it is the designer and key implementer: the gang truce is, in essence, a tacit admission by the government that it has lost the battle with the gangs.

On the flip side, the gangs understand that by upping the criminal ante -- via homicides, extortion, or other means -- they can gain political capital and obtain a proverbial seat at the table. Indeed, the gangs already employed this tactic. On the eve of the truce, gang leaders threatened to unleash their members to disrupt local elections. The government balked and transferred them to the medium security prisons, thus starting this process on what was a sour note. In addition, there is a fear that the gangs, who claim to have no ideology and no interest creating political parties, will use this political capital to help them develop criminal enterprises or shield themselves from prosecution.

2) More space for criminal activities.

When insurgencies and governments negotiate, war normally continues apace and can even accelerate as both sides try to garner more power at the negotiating table. El Salvador's gang truce has been characterized by the opposite: lower homicides.

But while homicides are down, there is little indication that other criminal activities are as well. Extortion, the gangs' main source of income, continues unabated. Drug trafficking activities, including by gang members, seems to be proceeding without interruption. This reality may help bolster one theory that the gang truce was really an effort by larger criminal interests to grant the MS-13 and Barrio 18 more breathing room for their operations. Such an allegation, however, remains unsubstantiated.

Also worrying is the fact that by maintaining the truce for considerably longer than expected, the gangs have proved they have the discipline needed to operate more sophisticated criminal enterprises. The gang truce may grant them the space needed to try and do so, especially as the government focuses on instituting more "peace zones."

Such was the case in Colombia, when the government cleared out an area the size of Switzerland to negotiate with the hemisphere's oldest insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in 1999. In what would ultimately become a failed negotiation with the government, the FARC used the area to hold kidnapping victims, retrain their forces, and deepen their involvement with drug trafficking operations, among other activities.

3) Less trust in the government.

The truce has been exclusionary and has suffered from a lack of transparency. While this can lead to positive results (see the Colombian government's current peace talks with the FARC), in this case it is eroding people's confidence and trust in the government. Major civil society actors have not been included, and even the Catholic Church, part of which helped mediate the talks, recently declared that "the truce had not produced any benefit for the honorable and working society."

In a hasty effort to correct this image, the mediators created the Fundacion Humanitaria. However, that organization may be meant to do nothing more besides channel the expected windfall from the international donor community for rehabilitation, job training, and prevention programs. In the meantime, there is a fear that these programs will just benefit gang members and not the "honorable and working society." According to polls, most people do not believe the truce will ever benefit them. Until the process is more open and inclusive, the government will have a hard time selling the benefits and opening the way for the next phase.

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