Youths in one of El Salvador's designated peace zones

A spate of apparent revenge killings carried out by gangs in El Salvador has raised concerns about the sustainability of the country's gang truce, as the government announces plans to expand violence-free "peace zones."

According to the newspaper El Nacional, four people died and three were injured in a gunfight between rival gangs on February 1, in San Miguel, El Salvador's third-largest city. Justice and Security Minister David Munguia Payes says there has been "a chain of revenge" attacks carried out despite the truce between the country's two main gangs, Barrio 18 and MS-13.

The minister said recent killings had seen the murder rate creep up to an average of 6.6 a day since the start of this year, up from 5.3 at the end of 2012. However, the rate still remains far below the average of 14 murders a day registered before the truce.

Three recent murders took place in the municipality of Ilopango -- one of the areas designated as a "peace zone," where the gangs have pledged to end criminal activities. 

In a video published by La Presna Grafica, Munguia denied the Ilopango killings undermined the truce and the peace zones, claiming that one murder was carried out by a gang not involved in the truce, while another was killed elsewhere and the body dumped in the area. 

"The violence-free municipalities are going to have incidents, which we are going to evaluate in the medium and long term," he said.

He also announced plans to extend the number of peace zones to 60. The first four peace zones were inaugurated in January, with 14 more currently scheduled.

 

InSight Crime Analysis

Comparatively minor outbreaks of violence have continued since the truce was first announced in March 2012, but this has not yet undermined support for what could be a fragile initiative. The secretive nature of the process, as well as the lack of clarity about what is next, is making many uneasy.

The peace zone plan, for example, is ambitious, relying on the full support of all gang members and other sectors of society and government to succeed. The rise in homicides and ongoing sporadic violence suggest this may not have been fully secured and that further negotiations could spark some ugly battles over what are scarce resources.

The role of the security services is also unclear. While it has been announced the military will withdraw from the zones, plans to stop night patrols by police remain unconfirmed. A lack of clear guidelines for security forces in the event of violence could become problematic and undermine the effectiveness of the peace zones.