El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén

The administration of El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén insists that it will not negotiate with the MS13 gang, which made a public proposal at the beginning of January that included its own dismantlement. The most recent signals coming from the government suggest that the proposal won't be taken seriously. Nonetheless, there are also indications that parallel attempts at dialogue could be made.

On January 9, in a letter published by El Faro, a new gang leader who said he spoke for the entire organization made a public proposal to sit down and negotiate with the Salvadoran government. The proposal even included permitting MS13 members to leave its ranks as a way of disbanding the gang.

This was not the first time the country's largest gang had proposed a dialogue with the government; they had previously done it in March 2016. That proposal occurred as new "extraordinary" security measures were being implemented by the government, and at the start of a nationwide drop in homicides. Nonetheless, the most recent proposal was the first time that the MS13 talked openly about dismantling itself.

It appears the government, or at least the security cabinet, doesn't believe the MS13.

SEE ALSO:  MS13 News and Profile

The most recent official to talk in public about potential negotiations was Public Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde. Landaverde dismissed the possibility of dialogue, as he had previously done while national police director.

"It's not true, they are not going to turn a new leaf," the minister said on a local television station. "There is no intention on the part of the gang structures to establish a dialogue with the government and even less [intention] to dissolve the groups."

However, President Sánchez Cerén -- who has previously made public statements about similar proposals -- still hasn't said anything. 

Sources within the executive branch have told InSight Crime that the government has not yet rejected the idea of closely following the participation of the Catholic Church in an eventual dialogue with gang leaders.

The United Nations could be another avenue for leading talks between the two sides via their new envoy to El Salvador, whose official objective is to "facilitate national dialogue." But both the government and the UN avoided directly referring to the gangs when they presented the new envoy on January 16, which marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that brought an end to El Salvador's civil war.

The MS13's most recent proposal comes in the midst of this constant violence -- a muted war between the state and the gangs.

Nonetheless, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was in charge of receiving the UN envoy, recently told Revista Factum that the government would be willing to hear whatever may come of the dialogue initiated by the UN.

While little is clear for now, the signs coming from the governments remain mixed. This represents a break from how the government responded to potential dialogues in the past.

Then, of course, there is what's happening on the streets. 

The Fall in Homicides and Confrontations

The MS13 proposal arrived a few days before the end of 2016 -- a less violent year than 2015, when gangs and the state engaged in a low-intensity war of sorts that resulted in a significant portion of the 6,640 homicides registered that year.

While the homicide rate dropped in 2016, it nonetheless remained very high. Last year closed with just under 5,300 murders, which translates to an average of 14 per day and a homicide rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Both the gangs and the government attempted to take credit for the reduction in homicides that started between February and March 2016.

In March, the gangs made timid proposals for dialogue and even announced partial, unilateral truces, which they said had led to the drop in homicides.

The Sánchez Cerén administration attributed the slight decreases in homicides to the government's "extraordinary measures," which were included in a package of legal provisions that granted operational freedoms to the police and ratified the participation of the army in public security functions.

SEE ALSO:  El Salvador News and Profiles

In practice, the government has embarked on a new version of "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist), this time focused on the persecution of gang leaders and on the dismantling of gang "cliques." According to the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, non-governmental organizations and even the US State Department, the government has often carried out illegal actions such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances.

According to the official narrative, a sizable portion of the actions against the gangs take the form of "confrontations," in which several gang members end up dead in supposed shootouts, while casualties of security forces are rarely reported.

The government has declined to respond definitively to these allegations, but it seems increasingly difficult to ignore them. This became especially true after the Supreme Court's Constitutional Tribunal accepted a habeas corpus petition to clarify the 2014 disappearance of three young men by the army in Armenia, an agricultural town in the western part of the country.

The gangs, for their part, have often responded with targeted attacks against members of the security forces and their families. In 2016, just under 50 police officers were killed in individual attacks attributed to gang members; a score of soldiers suffered the same fate.

The MS13's most recent proposal comes in the midst of this constant violence -- a muted war between the state and the gangs. It seems, on one hand, that the actions of the government, legal and illegal, have made an impression on the gangs. And on the other hand, it seems that the gangs, mainly the MS13, continue to use violence -- and in particular homicides and extortion -- as bargaining chips in their interactions with the authorities. The state itself had already given them a green light to do so in 2012.

Past Talks and Future Possibilities

The administration of former President Mauricio Funes and his closest collaborators negotiated with the gangs in 2012. Representatives of then President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén negotiated with the gangs in 2014. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN), in power since 2009, negotiated with the gangs for votes. The main opposition party, Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA), also allegedly negotiated with the gangs for votes. Today, when for the first time the biggest of the gangs has offered to discuss the possibility of dismantling itself, no one wants to talk with them -- at least, so it appears.

The 2012 truce, in addition to precipitating an undeniable drop in homicides over the course of half a year, gave the country's three most important gangs -- the MS13 and two factions of the Barrio 18, the Revolucionarios and the Sureños -- a certain temporary political status based on the selective use of violence.

It is that same belligerence that the gangs appeal to today, in different conditions, to propose negotiations as the only solution to the violence.

According to security officials, the state is willing to stay the course with its extraordinary measures and continue to tolerate abuses such as those that occurred in Armenia. President Sánchez Cerén's silence, on the other hand, bears the signs of political calculations that do not yet add up to being in favor of dialogue. 

The possible participation of the Catholic Church, this time with the institutional support of the bishops and the Vatican's diplomatic representative (the local nuncio), as well as whispers of the UN's possible participation, appear to indicate that certain dynamics could very well have changed. 

Nevertheless, up until now nothing clearly demonstrates that this will give rise to productive talks, despite the MS13's proposal and the good intentions of the Catholic priests.

In the meantime, homicides in El Salvador continue to occur at the same macabre rhythm of 12 per day.


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