Gang members in El Salvador's 'peace zone'

The first "peace zone" has been inaugurated in El Salvador, launching the second phase of the gang truce, which could prove critical in determining whether the initiative is sustainable.

Gang leaders and mediators named Ilopango, a town near the capital, a violence-free area where no crimes will be committed. Gang members will hand in weapons and stop all crimes, including extortion, kidnapping, theft, and murder. Some 18 municipalities in the country may eventually see the creation of such zones. 

Gang mediators Bishop Fabio Colindres and ex-congressman Raul Mijango proposed the peace zones last November as a follow up to the truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs, which has seen murders drop by two-thirds since it was negotiated last year.

There remains some confusion over how the zones will be funded. Ilopango's Mayor Salvador Ruano told newspaper La Prensa Grafica that during a meeting with local politicians on January 22, Security Minister David Munguia Payes had offered $72 million to the local governments which may host the peace zones. Other mayors present at the meeting made conflicting claims, one stating the zones would be supported by "pure goodwill" and another saying each would be given between $100,000 and $500,000. Nothing was confirmed by the national government.

Earlier in the week, a charitable foundation was launched with the aim of raising funds internationally to pay for technical and human resources aimed at aiding the truce, El Diario de Hoy. The foundation will also carry out legal studies, research similar initiatives in other countries, and analyze effects of public policy on the truce.

The next peace zone is scheduled to be inaugurated in Santa Tecla on the 25th, followed by another in Quezaltepeque on the 31st.

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While statements by gang representatives indicate a real will for this project to work, the plan is ambitious and will need tangible support from all sectors of society to succeed. Gang members have stated their desire to work in the legal economy, increasing the pressure on the government to provide them with job opportunities. Both the government and several multinational companies already have job programs in place for gang members, but they will likely need to expand them greatly as the peace zones multiply across the country. 

One issue is extortion, which continues to be a major source of income for the gangs. Gang members have made clear they will continue extorting until conditions exist for reinsertion into society, reported D.C-area newspaper El Tiempo Latino. Some gang members have already complained that the government isn't doing enough to speed up this process.

Also unclear is the role of law enforcement. When the proposal for the peace zones was first launched, it was initially reported that police would stop large-scale operations and nighttime patrols in these areas. However, recent reports only discuss the gangs' side of the deal. Moving forward, the cooperation of security services will be essential -- police will need clear guidelines for what to do should an outbreak of violence occur in a peace zone.

The truce has been widely lauded as a success so far, demonstrating that there are alternatives to the "iron fist" approach previously employed by the Salvadoran government. However, there have also been reports the maras have taken advantage of the truce in order to regroup and reorganize.

This next phase could again set a precedent for countries grappling with gang violence around the world, but there are key issues which must be addressed for it to have a real chance of success.