Barrio 18 gang leader 'Viejo Lin'

A recent spike in homicides raises concerns about the state of El Salvador's gang truce. But if the numbers are examined more carefully, they show that these alarm bells are more political than empirical.

This analysis is focused on the empirical. To be sure -- while El Salvador's gang truce did reduce homicides in nearly all of the country's most violent municipalities -- in a more recent time period (October 2012 through April 2013), 40 percent of these municipalities experienced a spike in violence, when compared with the first seven months of the truce.

This is the second installment in a two-part series about the geographical distribution of El Salvador's violence since the gang truce in March 2012. Read the first part here

This is an alarm bell, since the upward trend in homicides in these key municipalities could quickly push the national rate upward and put at risk the truce itself. As can be seen in the following table, the most notable increases were registered in Chalchuapa, Ilobasco, and Quezaltepeque.

One thing worth noting is that Quezaltepeque is among a group of municipalities that, since January 2013, have agreed to form part of the second phase of the gang truce, under an initiative known as "Violence Free Municipalities," which has focused on violence prevention and improved local government participation.

Municipality   

Homicides, first 7 months of the gang truce,

March to September 2012

Homicides, October 2012 to April 2013 Percent Increase
Santa Ana 49 54 10.2
Apopa 30 36 20
Chalcuapa 13 27 107.7
Ilobasco 16 23 43.8
La Union 17 22 29.4
San Pedro 16 20 25
Usulutan 16 18 12.5
Nahuizalco 15 18 20
Quezaltepeque 13 18 38.5
Zacatecoluca 13 16 23.1

But while the alarm has gone off, as noted in the first part of this series, we need to remember that the overall homicide rate has remained steady and even dropped from 1,243 in the first seven months of the truce to 1,210 in the second seven months. In other words: over the course of the truce, the reduction in homicides has been sustained, but the number of municipalities in which homicides have occurred has been rising.

An important clarification is that this
robberyanalysis looks only at homicides, the only criminal activity encompassed in the negotiation process itself. In order to get a more complete idea of what has happened during this process, we would also need to consider non-lethal violence -- i.e., those crimes that include threats of the use of force but do not end with the death of the victim. What police numbers show in that respect is that in 2012 -- during the truce -- there was also a decrease in robbery and extortion rates, although the drop was much smaller than in the case of homicides. However, given the available information and the lack of progress in investigations into these types of crimes, it is impossible to know what percentage of them the maras commit.

In this context of a notable decrease in homicides and more moderate decreases in robberies and extortions, a figure that stands out is the persistent perception of insecurity on the part of Salvadorans. The most recent survey taken by the Public Opinion Institute in May 2013 illustrates this widespread belief: when asked whether the truce had reduced crime, 45 percent said "not at all" and 30 percent said only a "little," while 10 percent responded, "a lot." One thing to highlight is that the "lower-middle," "working class," and "marginal" sectors of society are those that have the most negative view of the truce's impact. And in terms of political affiliation, those with the most negative opinions are members of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) parties -- that is to say, the opposition parties.

SEE MORE: Pros and Cons of El Salvador's Gang Truce

The Truce, Violence, and Possible Scenarios

According to local daily news sources, from June 28 to July 3, 2013, there were as many as 88 homicides in El Salvador. These murders have been linked to the maras, and for some analysts is a demonstration of their capacity to suddenly drive up the violence.

From the beginning of the truce, it was clear that the negotiating power of the gangs' leadership relies on their use and control of violence, and that the authorities depend in great part on the will and capacity of the mara leaders to stop homicidal violence in the country. Looking at it from this perspective, the truce is, simply put, fragile: there is a considerable lack of popular support (illustrated in the public opinion polls), the President has taken a largely ambivalent approach towards the truce, and the government has not committed the necessary institutional resources to take advantage of the space the truce has opened for it. Under these conditions, it is likely that there will be similar escalations of violence in the months to come; there are plenty of warning signs already. 

It is clear that the breakdown of the current process would be very costly, both in terms of human lives and in terms of the squandered opportunity to implement social programs in those communities most affected by insecurity. The end of the truce would result in an escalation in homicides that could push El Salvador towards 14 to 18 deaths a day (during the truce, this average has decreased to 5 per day).

scenariosIf we returned to the period before the truce -- which was very similar to that registered in the week of June 28 to July 2, 2013 -- the estimated cost of ending the current gang pact would be approximately 1,250 lives. This scenario, which is reflected in the graphic (Scenario A), shows that, if violence returns to pre-truce levels now, the year would end with 3,347 homicides. On the other hand, if the homicide rate from the first half of 2013 were to continue, the year would end with nearly 500 homicides less than those registered in 2012 (Scenario B) and 1,250 homicides less than the doomsday scenario. These are obviously hypothetical calculations that assume that homicides will follow the same trends seen in previous periods.

SEE MORE: InSight Crime's Coverage of El Salvador's Gang Truce

Under these circumstances, the most obvious solution would be to continue the truce. The question, then, is how to strengthen it and how to keep homicides from rising sharply when the gangs attempt to exert their strength in order to pressure the government. The analysis proposed in these articles offers some ideas:

1) Focus attention on the 25 municipalities in which over 50 percent of the country's homicides are concentrated -- and in the specific areas within these municipalities where violence is concentrated. 

2) Do something about the other factors and actors that cause violence, and maintain El Salvador's homicide rate at over 30 per 100,000 inhabitants (one would have to estimate what is the impact of other phenomena, such as intra-family violence or organized crime, on the national homicide rate).

3) Create alert mechanisms to respond quickly to escalations in violence, under a scheme of focused prevention, directing actions on the gang cells that are breaking the truce.

4) Track not only the number of homicides, but also the number of municipalities in which they are occurring -- this is essential for controlling the process by which violence expands.  

5) Establish an effective way of verifying compliance with the truce, one that periodically reports on homicide trends, the actors allegedly responsible, and the victims of this violence.

These are clearly short-term containment measures for possible escalations of violence, and the government seems to be implementing some focused use of resources already. In general, the key is to reach a point where homicide levels are not dependent on the maras but on the response of state institutions. It is clear that before making use of violence, the state should worry about containing it. In other words, a repressive, "Iron Fist," approach is not an option.

Looking at the geography of El Salvador's homicides suggests there are several important actions the state could take, in terms of moving from the uncertainty of whether the truce will break down, to the certainty of providing citizen security. Such an approach would make more use of intelligence, rather than force. Providing better information about the truce, formulating a more transparent policy regarding the process, and making decisions based on evidence are steps that would contribute to the truce's sustainability. It is simply not enough to cross our fingers and hope that the gangs don't choose to flex their muscles again. 

* Juan Carlos Garzon is a visiting expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of Mafia & Co.: The Criminal Networks in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. Follow him on Twitter at @JCGarzonVergara.