El Salvador's gangs want a new truce

The conclusions of a recent study examining the outcomes of gang truces in Latin America suggest a new peace agreement between the Barrio 18 and MS13 in El Salvador may only lead to increased violence in the long term. 

The study (pdf), conducted by Arizona State University and El Salvador’s National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), evaluates the conditions under which gang truces occur, the role of negotiators, and the short- as well as long-term effects of the agreements. Using the case studies of El Salvador, Honduras, and Jamaica, the authors found several common conditions that led to a gang truce:  

1) Communities had been experiencing an “uncharacteristically high number of gang-related homicides” over an extended period of time, which put pressure on the government to take action.

2) Attempts at controlling gang violence through suppression-oriented strategies had failed.

3) The government's inability to decrease violence had become readily apparent, leading state and community leaders to seek “an alternative strategy in which negotiators would formally and/or informally work directly with gang leaders to establish a truce.”

4) Key stakeholders in El Salvador, Honduras, and Jamaica played similar roles in negotiations. Gang leaders were willing participants in the process and sought to collaborate with negotiators -- typically a small group of individuals perceived to be “honest brokers.”

However, strategies on how to implement the respective truces differed. These differences were primarily related to how negotiators and the gangs identified common goals and “tangibles that could be delivered to the gang in exchange for the gang achieving the stated goals.”

In El Salvador, negotiators secured promises of immediate changes in gang behavior (i.e., violence reduction). In exchange, imprisoned gang leaders were relocated to less-restrictive prisons. Following this short-term success for both parties, broader, more long-term issues could be negotiated on a stronger footing.


The findings of the ASU-FUNDE study cast doubt on the wisdom of initiating a second gang truce in El Salvador.


In Jamaica and Honduras, however, gang leaders asked for long-term government and social changes in exchange for an immediate reduction of violence. Neither country could deliver the gangs' demands in a short time frame, suggesting the importance of quick and easy results in order “to achieve trust and serve as a first test of gang leaders’ ability to deliver." The study found the gang truces in Jamaica and Honduras had no short- to medium-term impact on overall violence, and attributed the decline in homicides to broader trends in these countries.

In contrast, the authors found the gang truce in El Salvador was as an effective short-term strategy for reducing homicides. The truce saved an estimated 5,500 lives between March 2012 and June 2014, according to the report.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

While the authors regard the gang truce in El Salvador as a short-term success, they found it appears to be an isolated case, and cautioned policymakers considering a gang truce to be aware of the potential for long-term negative consequences -- which could outweigh any potential benefits in the near term.

InSight Crime Analysis

Gang truces are a controversial undertaking, the benefits of which -- as this new study suggests --- are mixed and open to competing interpretations. Perhaps the best example of this is the heated debate over whether or not El Salvador's government should re-start negotiations with the country's principal street gangs, the Barrio 18 and MS13.

Initially, El Salvador's gang truce led to a dramatic drop in homicides -- leading neighboring nations Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize to consider and pursue similar arrangements in the hopes of replicating El Salvador’s success. In late 2013, however, the truce began to unravel and violence started rising, reaching epidemic levels during the first half of 2015.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador gang truce

Recently, Salvadoran gang leaders have called for a reinstatement of the truce, asking for a “mechanism” that allows for dialogue and an eventual peace agreement. In essence, the gangs are giving authorities a high-stakes ultimatum by refusing to reduce violence until the government comes to the negotiating table.

Nonetheless, the findings of the ASU-FUNDE study cast doubt on the wisdom of initiating a second gang truce in El Salvador

On the one hand, El Salvador is undoubtedly experiencing two of the conditions the study suggests should be met before a gang truce can be struck: high levels of gang violence and limited government capacity for social control.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Yet is is unclear to what extent the MS13 and Barrio 18 leadership can control its members and deliver immediate benefits such as a reduction of violence. The gang leaders have been transferred back to a maximum-security prison facility, ostensibly limiting their ability to coordinate and exert control over the day-to-day activities of members on the street. Furthermore, gang leaders reportedly agreed to halt violence in early 2015, yet El Salvador just experienced the two deadliest months the country has seen since its civil war.

Another gang truce also heightens the potential for increased violence in the long term, similar to how murder rates in El Salvador have been soaring since the breakdown of the first truce. A second gang truce thus raises the possibility of a cyclical effect, with periods of lowered homicide rates punctuated with periods of extreme violence.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

The power of Colombia's elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country's agricultural land.1  Under Spanish rule, Colombia's agriculture was organized on the hacienda...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid...

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America...

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

In a new report based on extensive field research, InSight Crime and the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa have traced how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence...

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Transnational organized crime likes opportunities and little resistance. Bolivia currently provides both and finds itself at the heart of a new criminal dynamic that threatens national and citizen security in this landlocked Andean nation.

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Faced with the government's failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan's vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the...

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

If Uruguay's proposal to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana is properly implemented and overcomes political and economic hurdles, it could be the most important drug regulation experiment in decades.