Despite President Mauricio Funes' denial that his government struck a deal with gang leaders to lower homicide rates in return for better prison conditions, it is now clear that someone in the administration helped broker this truce, setting what could be a dangerous precedent for dealings with gangs regionwide.
"The government did not sit down to negotiate with gangs," President Funes said during a press conference this week. However, the president admitted that the government "accompanied" the process and "facilitated" the agreement, reportedly brokered between the Catholic Church and leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18.
Funes said the government's participation consisted of providing the trucks, guards, and helicopters needed to monitor the transfer the of prison leaders from a maximum security prison to several less-restrictive facilities.
He added that the transfers were "not illegal" and should not be defined as a concession to the MS-13 and Barrio 18, as the inmates did not receive "preferential treatment" at these new facilities.
Funes added that in the coming weeks, the government would form a commission of political, private sector, community, and Church leaders in order to define a new anti-gang strategy that would emphasize socio-economic solutions, rather than suppression. He cited Brazil's approach to reducing crime in the Rio de Janeiro favelas as an example.
Funes' statement is the latest in a wave of denials and non-denial-denials concerning the nature of the discussions with MS-13 and Barrio 18. El Faro first reported in early March that the prison leaders were transferred because the Security Ministry struck a deal with them.
The New York Times appeared to confirm this account, reporting that security and intelligence officials had discussed making such a pact prior to the prison transfer. In the days that followed, El Salvador's homicide rate dropped significantly, reportedly from an average of 14 a day to just five.
By Funes' account, the government was aware that the Church was carrying out negotiations, but other than allowing for the transfer between prison facilities, the involvement of the Security Ministry stopped there.[See InSight Crime profiles of MS-13 and Barrio 18]
But other questions remain, including whether the government granted other concessions or may have even paid the MS-13 and Barrio 18. The Church insists that the truce was brokered without conditions. And Funes said that the prison transfer was necessary in order for the gang leaders to communicate with their subordinates, so they could disseminate the order that gang killings must be halted. Such communication would not have been possible within a maximum security facility, he said.
As El Faro points out, the government's approval of the prison transfer is something of a paradox. The security strategy previously favored by Defense Minister David Munguia focuses on breaking up communication between the top command of the MS-13, Barrio 18, and their junior commanders. But in order to facilitate a cease in homicides, it was necessary to make this communication easier, not harder, to take place.
The other contradiction is that even as Funes denies any involvement in facilitating the drop in homicides, he was all too ready to take credit for it, El Faro notes. Notably, Security Minister Munguia had previously stated that unless homicide rates dropped 30 percent after a year he spent on the job, he would resign.
The question facing Funes now is whether the gang truce will hold, and how much his political reputation may now depend on it. Truces between gangs usually lead to a temporary drop in violence, but they are difficult to sustain or to transform into more long-lasting agreements. In 2010, several community leaders brokered a truce between warring factions of the city mafia in Medellin, Colombia. Like El Salvador's case, murders dropped precipitously for several weeks. But the deal eventually disintegrated and homicide rates again began to climb.
In addition, brokering deals with gangs sets a dangerous precedent. The gangs, emboldened by their political power, may seek to further upset the delicate balance between justice and peace by demanding more concessions. And gangs in other countries may seek similar deals. The Machiavellian amongst these gang leaders could even take it in the other direction, threatening to increase homicides on a widespread scale just prior to elections, for instance, in order to gain a more favorable position at the negotiating table.
Funes should understand this well. His political party, the former guerrilla umbrella group known as the FMLN, played this game of brinkmanship with the government for years before signing a peace accord in the early 1990s. And for some monitoring El Salvador, this balance may have already tilted too far in the favor gangs.
In the end, regardless of Funes' public hair-splitting, the narrative of this case is solidifying around the notion that the government was involved in a deal. As such, Funes' next challenge will be to convince Salvadorans that the trade-off in peace is worth the steep price in justice.