The MS13 has called for negotiations with the government, which could include the dismantling of the gang, implying a drastic change in posture since four years ago when the gang's national leadership refused to enter a dialogue about its possible dissolution.
Three spokesmen for the MS13 revealed to El Faro a proposal to discuss solutions to the crisis of violence in a public negotiation with the government and all political parties. Eugenio Chicas, spokesman for the presidency, says it is a proposal that "must be considered."
Spokesmen for the MS13 -- the largest gang in El Salvador -- met El Faro at the end of December 2016 to present a new proposal to society and government. The gang is asking for the creation of a public dialogue that would include all political parties, the government, human rights institutions and leaders of the three main gangs -- the Barrio 18 Sureños, the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and the MS13. The MS13 say their proposal aims to halt the problem of violence and stop the escalation of conflict between gangs and security forces before it results in a "war."
As a starting point, the gang has proposed two points that have never been negotiated previously. The first is the possibility that the government would create a process that would allow active members to leave the gang. "A child does things that he doesn't have to do, but when he becomes an adult or has children, he matures and doesn't want to continue doing what he's done in the past," said one MS13 leaders in an interview that took place in a community in the metropolitan area of San Salvador.
The second point -- which is the principal new offer -- refers to discussing the dismantling of the gang. El Faro probed the group on this point during the interview and in subsequent telephone conversations. The MS13's spokesmen insisted that the issue can be addressed if they are treated seriously in the negotiations. "The FARC have done it," a spokesman said, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). "We can not leave saying that we are going to disarm. Everything depends on how the government receives the proposal and the seriousness it gives." He added that they had seen the process of the demobilization of the FARC in Colombia as a model: "After killing people and being terrorists, they are going to reinsert themselves as citizens," he said.
Unlike the Colombian guerrillas, MS13 became a criminal structure in El Salvador without a political agenda, without ideological cohesion and without seeking to overthrow the government to seize power. However, since the initiation of the dialogue that former President Mauricio Funes established with the gangs in 2012, they have been articulating a new discourse, justifying their existence due to social marginalization and a lack of the state in the communities in which they grew up.
The proposal to allow gang members to leave and to allow the gang to dismantle is a marked difference to the negotiations in 2012, known as "the truce." At the time, the MS13 said that the possibility of disarticulation was out of any discussion. When questioned about this major change of direction, a representative explained, "Four years ago there was no clear direction as to where this was going. The gang has transformed and has been maturing. That's what the truce taught us."
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Presidential Communications Secretary Eugenio Chicas said that he could not say if the government would agree to sit down and talk to gang members, because up to now the decision has been that this is not a way to solve the problem of gang violence. "Until today, the position has been not to deal with these groups, but the president has the authority to change this," Chicas said. "It's an issue that needs to be considered."
National Police Director Howard Cotto's views are starker, making the point that the government does not have anything to negotiate with the gangs. "All that they offer is to continue committing crimes if we don't negotiate with them and that is utterly wrong…What do they offer? To stop killing or stop extorting? And in return they want something? No! Just stop doing it," he concluded.
The New Spokesmen
On November 24, 2016, an MS13 gang member proposed a meeting with El Faro on behalf of the whole group. This member has served as an official spokesman for the gang a number of times, along with "Piwa" (Marvin Quintanilla), accused by authorities of being the financial brain of the gang. The name of this spokesman is omitted as part of the agreement that allowed this meeting. The spokesman is part of a long chain of leaders. The power structure of the gang hasn't changed, only who represents the gangs on the street.
In 2012, in the context of the negotiated truce with the government, the MS13 created a leadership structure known as "La Ranfla en Libertad" outside of the prison structures to represent imprisoned leaders. The "ranfla" is the highest authority in MS13 and consists of the first gang members who had control of actions on the streets. Over time, however, almost all of the gang members that were part of the "ranfla" were arrested and sent to the Zacatecoluca prison. Nevertheless, the gang has been able to replace these leaders.
The gang member who got in touch with El Faro is connected to this long chain of substitutions and therefore has the power to speak on behalf of the whole structure. He has been a spokesperson for the MS13 for more than a year and has represented the gang before the Barrio 18's spokesmen.
The meeting took place on December 21, almost a month after the initial contact. The gang leader advised that he would not be present, but would delegate two spokesmen, authorized to speak on behalf of the MS13. The meeting took place in a community tightly controlled by the MS13.
The spokesmen said that they were representing the entire structure of the MS13 before El Faro. There was a list of ideas written down by hand on a few pages and a spokesman was expanding on each point. The main interest of the gang was to deny that they have decided to systematically assassinate police or military personnel in response to the hardening of conditions of gang members detained from April 2016.
"The MS13 is responding too late. At the very beginning, the [government] communiques began saying that the MS13 was at war with the government. It must have been answered. It must have been given a response in the same week in which the rumors of war began," said the spokesman.
He referred to the events that occurred during the first half of November, in which 10 policemen and 3 soldiers were killed. The government blamed the MS13 for waging an open war on police and soldiers. For that reason, authorities put in place stricter prison conditions for the members of this gang and launched an offensive against the territories controlled by them.
MS13 spokesmen said that there is no order from their leadership to launch attacks against the police, although they justified the murders of policemen, saying that it is the natural reaction of local leaders to harassment by security forces.
"A police officer who arrives and kills one, two or three members, or even people who are not a member of the gang, what do the gangs do? They react. That week is proof: they reacted to an attack," said one gang member. "When someone shoots, we have to say: 'Hey, calm down, kids, this isn't the way, this is not revenge.' But imagine when the police come, for example in Quezaltepeque, and they kill three kids. Do you think they are not more resentful and more eager to kill police?" This is a point that the gang has insisted on since the truce was broken in 2014.
They said that to address the situation, the gang has decided to offer a dialogue: "We are proposing a dialogue. We do not want to call it a truce or negotiation...because when you mention the word 'truce' or the word 'negotiation' people interpret that as an exchange for money, and it is not so. We are offering a dialogue for this country."
Representatives of the MS13 said that its structure is proposing a commission that includes not only the government, but also all political parties. "Because if only one party wants to do something good for the country, others will not let it advance." They also called for "human rights authorities and penal institutions, relatives of prisoners and community leaders" to be included.
They said they are looking for this "commission" to deactivate "the monster" they have created in communities. "We want to open all possible channels so that the population is not a victim of gangs. I'll put it this way: If you come from San Martin and want to go to San Bartolo hospital...who knows how many people are dying from a whole lot of things because they do not have that access? We have created that monster in communities and endless other places, and people cannot go to this or that area," said one of the gang members.
The first point on their list of issues to address at the proposed discussions is "mandatory reintegration of criminals, gang members and communities."
El Faro asked: "By reinsertion, we understand you mean mechanisms so that active members who want to stop being gang members can do so. So what you are asking is that they open official processes so that their members can stop being gang members?"
This was the answer: "That's right, that's right." And there were plenty of considerations about the possibility of making mistakes: "Every human being has a right to change. One is not going around and doing illicit things all of their life. There's family, kids, and it's good to want the best for them. Who gives work today to someone who is inked [tattooed]? No one," they said.
Later, in a telephone conversation with one of the same spokesmen, El Faro once again insisted on this point: "Do you realize that what you propose is in practice a means for the gradual dismantling of the gang?"
"So it is. What we want is to dismantle the lack of order in the streets."
Contacted later, the gang member who arranged the meeting repeated that this point does not constitute a promise of surrender, but that "all points can be discussed."
From 'No' to 'Maybe'
In October 2012, at the height of the truce under the Funes administration, El Faro interviewed the "ranfla" of MS13 -- the gang's national leadership -- at the Ciudad Barrios prison.
In those days, the most powerful men in the gang had been transferred from the maximum security prison to regular prisons as part of the agreement with the government. Led by Borromeo Henríquez, alias "Diablito de Hollywood" ("the Hollywood Devil"), the most iconic leader of this structure, a group of 20 leaders talked for more than four hours with three journalists from this newspaper. Although there were uncomfortable moments, the only point that strained the atmosphere to open hostility was the conversation about the dismantling of the gang, which provoked a great stir among the gang members and a resounding "no."
One of the leaders present at that meeting, known as "Chino de Western," was angry when asked if as a result of the negotiation that opened with the truce they would be willing to open the doors for their members to leave the gang. "You guys want to get into the affairs of the gang. And you know what? With all due respect, you have one here. I mean, you have your job, I want my gang. You ask us many compromising questions. Very compromising. You were three years old when I started running with the gangs! And you think I'm going to like that you come and tell me if we're going to dissolve? You know what? I don't think you have that right."
At that moment, another gang member broke into the conversation to question the reporter: "If you have questions, it's not a problem. The only thing is, that this always persists. How are we going to...every gang member who wants to get out can leave? I don't think so. That's up to us."
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Four years after that interview, three spokesmen much younger than the average age of the leadership -- around 40 years old -- talk about the topic naturally and propose it even as part of the negotiating agenda with the government. It is, they say, a matter of maturation in the gang.
The MS13 spokespeople said they were aware that this offer could be taken as a sign of gang weakness and predictably denied that the government's strategy has affected them. "Tell me which colony you know of that gangs have taken a step back in. The structure continues. The MS continues to be strong at the national level," they said.
The director of the police says that the government's strategy has managed to "weaken" the territorial control of the gangs a little, although he admits that "not in the terms that people expect, nor in those we expect. That is very hard and complicated and remains a huge challenge."
The gang members reminded the government that the ruling party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN), reached agreements with the main Salvadoran gangs to obtain their electoral support and they demand that the government resume the talks. "If you open a dialogue, and you offer a hand to turn this thing around, you have to take advantage of it, because blood is spilling from all sides: innocent people. If a policeman dies, the mothers and their children suffer. If a gang member dies, the mothers and children suffer," they argued.
Eugenio Chicas: 'It Must Be Considered'
El Faro spoke with the President's spokesperson Eugenio Chicas about the possibility that the confrontational policy against the gangs announced by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén in January 2015 might be put aside in order to consider the offer made by the MS13.
El Faro revealed the gang's offer to Chicas on Friday, January 6.
"What you are telling me sounds like a well thought and serious proposal, which cannot be given a quick and improvised response. I am not the man indicated to deal with an offer of this kind. This has to be taken care of by Interior Secretary Hato Hasbún, who is responsible for all sorts of dialogues and agreements on behalf of the government," said Chicas. He also claimed that neither the president nor Hasbún were aware of the gang's proposal.
Nonetheless, Chicas said he could offer an idea of the chances that the proposal would be taken into consideration. "The government's stance with respect to any dialogue, agreement or conversation with the gangs are very clear and cannot be negotiated. There can be no dialogue, no agreement and no conversation with these groups -- no deal. Until today. And I say so because this is what I know. If the president says otherwise, it will be up to him, and he has the authority to consider any other solution," he stated.
According to Chicas, the chances of opening up a space for dialogue with the gangs cannot be compared with the negotiations that the Colombian government undertook with the FARC guerrillas. "The possibility of finding a political solution to a conflict does not depend on how violent that conflict has been, but on the willingness of those fighting each other, which is ultimately what generates certain political expectations. Violence never opens the door to a political way out of a conflict."
Chicas believes that the possibility of exploring an agreement with the MS13 depends on several factors: first, the social acceptance of the negotiations; second, the convergence of the political willingness of different parties; and third, the resources needed to finance such a process and the legal discussions that must take place before it starts.
"This is an issue that must be considered. Not only has El Salvador's society proved to be against any attempt at dialogue or conversation with the gangs, it also vehemently opposes any advantage or legal benefit for these groups. And a government must understand the will of its citizens. This is a key element, but it is not the only one. Another crucial factor will be the chances of a political agreement between different governing forces, in this case the country's government together with the opposition and other social actors, as reflected in the National Security Council. This is another factor that must be taken into account, and another element is whether the strategy could yield better results within the political timeframe we have left. Bear in mind that elections will take place in the few years we've got left," he stated.
Chicas was pointing at the fact that Sánchez Cerén's mandate will end on June 1, 2019, and elections will take place in 2018 and 2019. In 2018 Salvadorans will elect the new Legislative Assembly and municipal councils, and in 2019 they will elect a new president. He also added that the country's financial outlook does not appear to be good and the negotiations might require more resources than the state's finances can provide.
"There's another crucial element we must take into account: these people argue that they are allegedly open to demobilizing, but only when this takes place as a result of some negotiations mechanism. Which makes me think -- we know the difficulties, the expectations and the claims they will raise upon demobilizing. They expect some $12,000 for every demobilized gang member, and given how many there are this would be a challenge that the country today would not be able to meet. There are not enough resources. I believe a responsible government should first reflect on the resources it has before taking up a challenge of this kind. Just how many people are we talking about? This is all rather complex," he said.
Even if the government begins negotiating with the gangs, the chance of gang members enjoying legal benefits would be off the table. The Constitutional Court, through a resolution dating back to August 2015, established that El Salvador's gangs are terrorist groups with which the state cannot come to agreements that would entail a reduction of the punishments they shall pay for the crimes committed. In the months prior to the elections that led the current administration to the presidency, several FMLN spokesmen began secret talks with the gangs, in exchange for their electoral support. In return, the FMLN promised that if they won they would resume the dialogues started during former President Funes's administration. Furthermore, they offered a $10 million microcredit scheme so that the gang members could start their own small businesses. The gangs have stated, through joint announcements, that they feel betrayed by the FMLN, as the latter stopped communicating with them as soon as they sided with the government.
Chicas avoided commenting on these secret talks, arguing that his role as presidential spokesperson only covered the events occurred during the present administration. And he further stated that "the government's decisions do not always coincide with the party's."