Do El Salvador Killings Reflect Danger to the Gangland Truce?

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Two local bosses of the Mara Salvatrucha gang have been killed by their underlings in El Salvador offering a glimpse at the tensions underlying the criminal pact that has precipitated a dramatic reduction in violence this year.

As the newspaper El Diario de Hoy has reported, two alleged commanders of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, were murdered August 20 in Soyapango, a sizeable suburb of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. According to authorities, the two men were killed inside a house used by the gang, and the way that the murders were carried out suggests that other members of the same gang were behind the killings.

The pair of victims, identified only by their nicknames “Truki” and “Nixon”, had long criminal backgrounds, and in fact had been arrested earlier this month for “belonging to gangs”. However, they were released days later.

Authorities told reporters that internal disputes over the truce between two principal gangs in El Salvador (Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18), which has prevailed for the past five months, was behind the dispute. The language of the report is not clear-cut, but it suggests that the two bosses were punished by their ostensible subordinates for undermining the truce.

What this incident means for the future viability of the truce is up for debate. First announced in March and negotiated with the mediation of an ex-congressman, the pact of non-aggression between MS-13 and Barrio 18 enjoyed at least some tacit support from the Salvadoran government, though the degree to which the government was making concessions has been a subject of dispute. (The digital newspaper El Faro said that the gangs agreed to the truce in exchange for the government transferring dozens of incarcerated members of the two gangs to lower security facilities. Both the gangs and the government denied this.) This led some to accuse Salvadoran authorities of collaborating with the enemy, and regardless of whose version is really true, the pact marked a surprising change of direction in the nation that used the “mano dura”, or hard-handed, approach to street crime last decade.

Nevertheless, the initial results were encouraging. During the first week following the prisoner transfers, murders dropped by 53 percent from their average over the previous year, and by a comparable figure over the first four months of the pact. As analyst James Bosworth has reported, this put El Salvador on track for an annualized murder rate of 34 murders per 100,000 residents, a far cry from its previous status as among the most violence-addled nations on the planet, and far safer than neighboring Honduras. The truce period also brought about El Salvador’s first day free of murder in three years. Despite the potential unseemliness of being perceived to have negotiated with criminals, institutional actors like the Organization of American States and the Catholic Church have thrown their weight behind the arrangement.

However murders have ticked up in recent months. As noted by InSight Crime, El Salvador registered 58 murders over the first week of August, a 33 percent increase over the average in July. This figure is nonetheless almost 40 percent less than the weekly average in January, but increases in violent crime often contribute to a self-reinforcing feedback loop, in which violence begets violence.

The recent rise in murders is even more disconcerting against the backdrop of infighting among members of one of the most important groups. Though there were just two victims in Soyapango, internecine bloodshed is rarely a harbinger of peace. The inability of bosses to control their underlings suggests a breakdown in the organizational coherence of the gang. If there ceases to be any controlling structure guiding (and limiting) the actions of the thousands of MS-13 members in El Salvador, the results could be scary.

Yet the one reassuring aspect of this case is that the killers were evidently working to protect the truce, not undermine it. This suggests that there is a level of support for a truce from within the ranks of the gangs that one or two aggressive leaders are not capable of overturning. Such an organic faith in the benefits of a less aggressive code of conduct, and the willingness to demand that all members of the group abide by it, offers the promise of an enduring shift toward a more peaceful equilibrium.

In other words, two trends –one hopeful, the other worrying– may be working at cross-purposes. For El Salvador’s recent security gains to become truly entrenched, the two must remain aligned: the structural coherence of the two major gangs must remain intact, and, from top to bottom and with a minimum of dissent, the members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 must maintain their commitment to peace.

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