Depending on who you ask, the nearly two-year old truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs is either a) collapsed; b) nearly collapsed; c) in transition; d) steady. El Faro media asked Raul Mijango, the truce’s original mediator. Here are some excerpts from that report.
The truce still has measurable vital signs, despite the explicit animosity between the mediator Raul Mijango and the security minister, Ricardo Perdomo, and the fact that the government has turned its back on it. According to the original mediators, the minister is trying to substitute them for Father Antonio Rodriguez and Pastor Mauricio Navas. Moreover, due to the restrictions imposed by Perdomo, the gangs have adapted their systems to speed up the decision making process.
These days, there is no lack of mourners of the truce, people who consider it dead, and not in a dramatic way, but rather, due to simple abandonment and neglect, extinguished by the force of no longer declaring it. But it breathes. The basic vital signs are still there.
The Vital Signs
Up until now, the country has not returned to having the daily homicide averages it had before the truce began in March 2012. This is the first visible vital sign that remains, though it is losing some steam and is less publicized. Since July, there has been a notable increase in homicides: the first six months of the year averaged 5.7 daily homicides. July, August, September and October, on the other hand, averaged 7.9 homicides. Compared with the 14 homicides from before the truce, this implies a less spectacular reduction than last year, but a reduction all the same.
Another vital sign also remains: the 15 leaders each from the MS13 and the two Barrio 18 factions that forged the truce have not returned to the maximum security prison Zacatecoluca. They remain in the medium security prisons. In fact, over time leaders from other smaller gangs like the Mirada Locotes or the Mao Mao were taken out of the maximum security prison after joining the truce. The soldiers have not resumed their previous task of reviewing those who entered the prisons. The retreat of the soldiers from the prisons was one of the strongest demands of the prisoners, who complained of repeated abuses committed by them against their families and particularly against their wives and mothers. The visiting regulations continue to be generous: they have not reinstated the restriction on children visiting their fathers in prison. Essentially, the basis of the agreement is as follows: keep gang leaders out of maximum security prisons and improve conditions in Salvadoran prisons and in return there will be less homicides.
However, something has changed, something important: the presidency, via former Security Minister David Munguia Payes, left the negotiating table, abandoning the truce and the mediators who made it possible: Raul Mijango and Bishop Fabio Colindres. Nothing more is happening. Their only participation consists of not undoing what has been done, in not returning the leaders to Zacatecoluca, not reinstating the soldiers at the head of the inspection points, not closing the doors of the jails to the children. But they have made it clear there is nothing else.
A Less Favorable Environment
Mijango begins this interview speaking of how the relationship between the mediators and the government has deteriorated. Although he insists, as he has from the start, that this pact is of his own authorship, based on the will of the gangs and not the presidency, he admits that this empty seat weighs on the agreement.
“It was clear there was a change in focus and that they were going to reduce the liberties given in the process,” he says, “that they were going to make it more difficult for the process to continue moving forward. However, since it never was the result of a negotiation, the process has not been interrupted, but continues… in a less favorable environment that has slowed down the processes for the facilitation work that we do.”
Have you found there are restrictions placed on you in the prisons?
The problem is that the environment is no longer the same. From the moment you enter and begin to see the hostility, first when processing the permit to go in, when they start giving excuses…At that moment, you realize you don’t have the same freedom. The times I have asked them to provide me with the conditions to deal with issues such as, for example, the spikes in homicides, so I could intervene and stop those processes, the response I have received is that it is not possible.
When General David Munguia Payes was security minister, could you show up and enter the prisons to speak to the inmates without restrictions?
I had to ask permission from the authorities, but there was agility and a proactiveness…I don’t resolve anything going to visit the members of just one gang in one prison. In order to do my job effectively, I need to be able to sit down with the members of the gangs involved in a problem to deal exclusively with that problem and search for a solution. That is how we operate.
The Mediators Lose Ground
Father Antonio Rodriguez, or Padre Toño, as he is known, is a passionate priest who has been working for years in San Salvador neighborhood of Mejicanos, with reinsertion programs for gang members. Since the beginning of the process, Rodriguez scorned the effort, publicly expressed doubt over the honesty of its objectives and claimed that it was a gang trick to get themselves into the world of organized crime. He said it was a smoke screen to distract attention from drug trafficking; that Mijango was an accomplice in all of this…That was until March this year, when a hitman shot and killed one of his closest collaborators, a member of the MS13 that worked with him and was still active in the gang. And then Toño changed. Overnight, he signed on to the truce and even became one of the fiercest defenders of it on social media, where he fought with words against anyone who attacked the process.
Has Toño replaced you as a link between the gangs and the government?
He goes more often to the prisons. Lately, he has visited them more than I have.
As a messenger of Ricardo Perdomo?
I don’t know. He would have to respond to that.
Did you ever go into the prisons as an envoy of Minister David Munguia Payes?
Never. Whenever I entered, it was as a member of the facilitating team that was following the process. That is the difference between Toño and me. That is why the process keeps going, because it doesn’t depend on the will of the presidency. If they decide to help, that’s great, and the results are better, but if they don’t help, it doesn’t cause a problem, because the process continues, just with more obstacles.
When this process started, homicides fell rapidly. They stayed this way for 15 months and the presidency highlighted it as one of its major accomplishments. Would it be correct to say they have turned their back on it? Like when one greets someone at a party because it is in their interest, but later treats them like a stranger.
They are two different things. We began a process, that at the beginning was given all the liberties that the presidency provided through Munguia Payes. These freedoms made it possible to maintain a stable reduction in homicides: we fell to an average of 5.5 homicides daily. That reality became more complicated in the past five months, because Ricardo Perdomo doesn’t provide even minimal spaces or liberties to us.
Would you say that currently you have no real interaction with the presidency?
No, because this is a subject over which opinions are divided in the presidency as well. There are people who don’t agree with the actions taken by the Security Ministry, because they are not producing results.
Like Munguia Payes [who is now minister of defense].
Yes, for example!
There may be divided opinions, but it doesn’t matter. The official opinion is that of Perdomo. Beyond your dialogue with General Munguia Payes, you have zero interaction with the Security Ministry?
Yes, that’s true, zero.
The Shift in Gang Strategy
The current circumstances have also affected the gangs: since the jailed leaders are more isolated than before, reaching agreements is more difficult, slower and more bureaucratic. For this reason, the mutant structures have adapted: in recent weeks, the gangs have given more power to their members in the streets. They have created operators with more autonomy and given them the freedom to make decisions without the need to check everything first with the prisons. The meetings that were held before in the prison in Mariona, which were attended by the major leaders of various organizations, are now held at the Humanitarian Foundation, with the leaders from the street.
I understand that due to the difficulties in communication, the gangs have reorganized: the street provides more possibilities for making operative decisions, and for this reason those in prison have begun to empower some of their members to make immediate decisions.
Only they can respond for what they have done.
But you know who you are speaking with.
What I said, and what I continue to say is that the obstacles generated by the system are not a justification for a spike in homicides, and that huge efforts must be made to maintain the [homicide] levels we had during the first 15 months; in that sense, I have requested they do whatever is in their power to keep the [murder rates] at the same [low] levels.
Before, when you had the backing of the government, people said: “Raul mediates between the government and the gangs.” Now that you are no longer speaking with the presidency, it could be said that you have become just a spokesperson for the gangs.
Not at all! I am the coordinator of a program supporting a reduction in violence in the country. It is a social and civil society initiative…
Civil society? But you accused civil society of boycotting the process and of wanting a blood bath because they did not support the truce.
Don’t give me that! I am a citizen.
As are the gang members. Seeing it that way, the group of citizens that you represent and coordinate are the gang members.
Not at all.
According to you, the majority of Salvadorans support this process?
If you go to the municipalities and the zones that have been hardest hit by this problem, there is a recognition of this effort there. The people who don’t believe in it are those that live in San Benito, Santa Elena…because there is no problem there.
The poor people, according to you, are those that believe in this process?
Yes, correct. Because they are the ones dying most often.
Of the possible results of the presidential elections in March 2014, is there a scenario that you see as more favorable for continuing with the truce?
The person who wins the election has to struggle with the search for solutions for the main problem faced by Salvadorans: the violence. And, if he who wins thinks that this modest effort — which in the face of winds and tides and El Faro we have moved forward — can contribute in some way, well, then we’re ready. If he doesn’t want it, well, we are going to continue contributing until the circumstances no longer allow us to.
Last time, I asked Paolo Luers, a facilitator and advocate of the talks, what state the truce was in and he said “in the freezer.” What would you say?
I’d say that it’s at low levels. In May this year, Bishop Fabio Colindres and I announced we would reduce our presence as mediators because we saw the country was going to enter an intense electoral season and we felt it was not prudent that such a valiant effort as this one be politicized.
Who does the survival of the truce depend on now?
On the MS13 and Barrio 18 and the other small gangs and the prisoners of common origin. It depends on them.
If the homicides reach the same levels as before the truce, would you say the truce is dead?
Yes. That day the process would have failed because I would feel that we no longer had anything to do about it, because I would see that as the gangs losing the will they expressed when we began this process.