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Military to Withdraw from El Salvador 'Peace Zones'

Children releasing doves at a 'peace zone' ceremony in El Salvador Children releasing doves at a 'peace zone' ceremony in El Salvador

El Salvador's Defense Minister confirmed that the military will withdraw from the areas designated "peace zones," where Mara gangs have pledged to end all criminal activity. 

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Defense Minister Atilio Benitez told La Prensa Grafica that the military will withdraw from the peace zones, as crime is expected to drop significantly in these areas, and the troops needed to focus their attention on regions with higher crime rates. 

Four municipalities have been inaugurated as crime-free sanctuaries so far, and another ten are expected to follow. The Defense Minister said that as a first step, the military would stop conducting joint patrols with police in the current peace zones, which include Sonsonate, Quezaltepeque, Ilopango and Santa Tecla.

The military's withdrawal is not a concession granted to gangs as part of the truce, the minister added. When the peace zones were first announced, there were some reports that said police would promise to cease night-time patrols in these areas, although the government has not yet confirmed that this is the case. 

Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have committed to handing over weapons and stopping all homicides, kidnapping, and extortion in these areas, as part of the second phase of El Salvador's national gang truce

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Benitez's announcement comes just as one of the designated municipalities, Ilopango, registered its first homicide since the peace zone was launched on January 23. According to La Prensa Grafica, the murder victim was a former gang member. The incident heralds some of the challenges that lie ahead if crime rates do not significantly improve in the designated peace zones. It is also clear that the security forces will have to redefine their approach in the designated municipalities, given the apparent scaling back of military and police operations in these areas.

While El Salvador's nation-wide gang truce has brought a dramatic improvement in crime rates since it was first announced in March 2012, incidents involving spats between alleged gang members have continued. In one such confrontation, four were killed and another three injured in a reported firefight between rival gangs in San Miguel municipality over the weekend, reports EFE. So far it seems as though these incidents have not undermined the government's support for the gang truce, although there is a risk that if gang killings continue in the peace zones, there could be a loss of goodwill. 

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