Can El Salvador Gang Truce Survive Presidential Campaign?

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Next year’s presidential elections are converting El Salvador’s gang truce into a political football that may be its undoing.

Though the campaigns for the 2014 presidential elections have just begun, the truce, credited with slashing homicides nationwide by around half in the past 16 months, is now at the center of bitter and heated debates as killings start to rise again.

The initial salvo came from the conservative opposition, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), which ran television ads accusing the governing left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) of making pacts with criminals. The ad, replete with a menacing voice-over, ends with an outstretched hand covered in tattoos, a mara trademark.

Although the truce has support among some local ARENA leaders, the party’s presidential candidate, Norman Quijano, openly repudiates it, saying recently that the truce “does not solve the problem” of violence in the country and has only served to legitimize the gangs through state recognition, and solidify their territorial control.

Current President Mauricio Funes, of FMLN, says he continues to support the truce, which was brokered between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Barrio 18, in March 2012. But his government has sent unclear and, at times, outright contradictory messages about it. The government has never spelled out its role in the truce – even as El Faro revealed that a former vice minister of security sat down with gang members in the creation of the first peace zone, part of the truce process.

Funes’ newly appointed security minister, Ricardo Perdomo, earlier called the truce “not part of the strategy of the state.” But after a burst of violence in July that saw 103 people killed in a single week, Perdomo released a statement saying that the government continues to support the truce, with the goal that it will be “sustainable and transparent.”

Then, in his first interview with La Prensa Grafica, Perdomo turned again, saying the truce had reinforced ties between gang members and international drug trafficking organizations. He refused to say whether the government would continue supporting the truce, and obfuscated the fact that it ever had, even when reminded that his predecessor, David Munguia Payes, had played a key role in facilitating the agreement.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

Raul Mijango, a former defense ministry advisor and one of the truce’s original negotiators, told InSight Crime the Funes government’s support for the truce has diminished, and that Perdomo’s statements underscored this.

“They say they are going to give it support,” he said, “but when it comes down to it, they create more obstacles.”

Mijango said he was not overly concerned with ARENA candidate Quijano’s anti-truce rhetoric, as he has been assured by Quijano and his staffers that the hard line stance is meant solely for the campaign.

“It would be stupid to end the possibility that this process keeps advancing,” he said.

Actions by the United States government, Mijango added, were more worrisome. The Treasury Department last year labeled the MS13 street gang a transnational criminal organization and later named six of its members to its “kingpin” list. In late July, the US ambassador in El Salvador reaffirmed that the United States would continue to seek extradition for gang leaders. Experts say that if MS13 leaders are extradited to the United States, it would spell the end of the truce.

SEE ALSO: MS13’s ‘El Barney’: A Trend or an Isolated Case?

“The US has not only decided to maintain their distance,” Mijango said. “They have begun a strong campaign to try to destroy this process.”

Though Mijango rejects the idea that El Salvador’s charged political environment alone would be enough to break the truce, he said it has encumbered his and his team’s ability to work with the gangs.

“I told [the gang members] that it’s necessary to wait until after the elections, so that [the election], where everyone is so frenzied, passes,” he said.

He has also asked the gangs themselves to stay out of politics, he said.

“We have an agreement that no one in the gangs is even going to wear a party shirt,” he said, “nor form any part of the party structures.”

Political tensions have also caused peace zones — areas where gangs have pledged to cut down on violence and other crimes — to flounder, with leaders unsure where to look for support. El Salvador’s Attorney General, Luis Martinez, called the peace zones “pandillalandia,” or gang-lands. Mijango said that the comments were made for political reasons.

“It’s much easier to sell ‘mano dura’ [iron fist policies]: more police, more prisons, more cameras, more protection,” said Adam Blackwell, Secretary for Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States, which has backed El Salvador’s peace process. “The softer side of security is always a more difficult and nuanced sales job when you are in a political campaign. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Canada or Chile.”

Jose Miguel Cruz, a visiting professor at Florida International University who has written extensively on Salvadoran gangs, told InSight Crime that many important players — violence prevention specialists, non-governmental organizations, and even government employees — who would normally be crucial in building the peace zones have bowed out because they don’t want to be seen as taking sides politically.

This leaves the peace zones, Cruz said, “without a lot of potential political actors, or non-political actors, who could contribute.”

Ilopango, a municipality on the eastern edge of San Salvador, was the first of what are now about a dozen peace zones. Since the truce, the number of homicides in the area has been slashed in half from 110 in 2011 to 61 in 2012.

With killings down, the local government has focused on soft-power measures. Ilopango created a chicken farm and bakery as alternative forms of employment for gang members, and it is building soccer fields and education centers in hardscrabble neighborhoods. With its recent successes, Ilopango would seem the poster child for the gang truce, but during a recent press conference Ilopango’s mayor railed against both the president and his new security minister.

Keeping the “pacification process” alive takes resources, mayor Salvador Ruano said, and Ilopango had not received any of the $9 million promised under the peace zone initiative.

“This puts us in an uncomfortable situation,” he said, “because there hasn’t been clarity as to whether [president Funes and his government] are going support this violence prevention.”

Ruano recently found himself embroiled in controversy after it was discovered that the municipality used funds from a national social program to aid 400 gang members.

Ruano skirted the question of whether his ARENA party — the same party whose presidential candidate is now rejecting the truce — needed to change its inflammatory rhetoric. His party and candidate Quijano support Ilopango’s violence prevention efforts, he said, saying nothing of the truce as a whole.

Carlos Rivas, a pastor at a 20,000 member church in Ilopango, told InSight Crime that he has seen significant gains since the truce: fewer homicides, a decrease in extortion, gang members asking for forgiveness from their communities.

“In spite of these things,” he said, “the truce, to me, keeps on being problematic because history has demonstrated that truces are fleeting.”

The political climate, he acknowledged, isn’t helping.

“We should take the theme of violence out of the election campaign, because when political campaigns use the theme of security, instead of advancing, we stagnate and recede,” he said.

The fresh wave of murders, Rivas said, was a demonstration by the gangs that they still have power and control.

“It is almost as though they were sending a message to the government,” he said, “sit down with us, or this is going to continue.”

Mijango, the truce’s negotiator, disagreed, saying the spike in violence was caused by a lack of communication between the imprisoned gang leaders and members in the streets. During the first seven months of the year, there were 1,295 killings, a third fewer murders than the year before. July, however, ended with 247 murders, 78 more than the previous July.

Cruz, who has been critical of the truce [see his report for the Woodrow Wilson Center here in PDF], predicted that there would be more deaths.

“You won’t see the process go in reverse and tomorrow we will go back to the previous rate of homicides,” he said. “What we are going to see is a step by step increase in the levels of violence going into the elections.”

After which, the truce’s fate will be in the hands of a new president.

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