El Salvador’s three main gangs have moved toward forming a common front with a coordinating committee and a nonaggression pact that prohibits the invasion of other gangs’ territories and kill missions targeting members of rival gangs.
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the two factions of Barrio 18 — Sureños and Revolucionarios — have maintained a venue for representatives to meet and develop consensus for over five years. The exercise began in February 2012 when the government of President Mauricio Funes helped bring about a virtual ceasefire between the gangs, know as the “Tregua,” or truce.
In April 2016, as the government was sending a series of repressive extraordinary measures to the legislature, the gangs succeeded in forming a coordinating mechanism and agreed to stop the killing of rival gang members.
This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of El Faro. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
The 2012 truce lasted little more than a year, and when it ended the government stopped allowing the imprisoned gang leaders who had coordinated it to hold meetings behind bars. Nevertheless, the gangs found a way to keep that space for dialogue open, facilitating the process that began this April. Unlike during the truce, gang members outside of prison are now the ones talking, and they no longer rely on external mediators to bring them together or to help them resolve conflicts. The gang representatives meet face to face and make decisions that are only consulted with their respective higher-ups.
El Faro witnessed several meetings between representatives of the three gangs that took place in a property belonging to the Lutheran Church in San Salvador. It was there that the gangs were able to agree on how to conduct their form of “public relations.” They met with a variety of other actors who believe that El Salvador can solve its violence problem through dialogue and negotiation with these outlaw organizations.
Participants in those meetings included members of evangelical churches, representatives of the Salvadoran Red Cross and German Ambassador Heinrich Haupt.
“I was invited by Bishop [Medardo] Gómez to bear witness to a meeting in which they discussed solutions aimed at reducing the violence, contributing to reintegration and constructing social peace,” Ambassador Haupt said. “Representatives of the Lutheran Church and of other churches were at the meeting, and I was told that there were spokespeople for the gangs.
“It is my understanding that other meetings have been attended by other national and international organizations, like the Red Cross. I understand that the government should be aware of these dialogues, given that Bishop Gómez is a member of the Public Security Council.”
Bishop Gómez has never hidden his belief that negotiating with gangs is essential to achieving peace in El Salvador. He is a member of the National Citizen Security and Conciliation Council (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana y Convivencia), where he has promoted this approach without success.
Gang members stopped attending the coordinating mechanism after the killing of Óscar Salvador Mejía, a spokesman for the Sureños faction of Barrio 18. He was gunned down in San Salvador early on the June 5. The three factions attributed the killing to what they characterized as government persecution of gang leaders.
However, that venue was not the only space available for the gang representatives to meet and come to agreements. Representatives of the three gangs confirmed that they continued to coordinate and to plan joint action. One gang member said there was a 12-member committee: six from the MS13 and three each from the Barrio 18 factions. The gang member said the committee only included two members who had participated in hammering out the 2012 truce, adding that the rest were either in prison or dead.
“At present, we have a nonaggression pact between us, the idea being that boundaries will be respected,” a Sureños representative said. “There are always problems that have to be resolved. It is not perfect. There’s always someone that shoots, but that is why we are here.”
A representative of the Revolucionarios faction gave an example of the type of discussions that occur. He said the March 3 massacre of 11 people in the town of San Juan Opico was hotly debated within the group.
The government’s initial reaction to the mass killing, expressed by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, was to blame the MS13. But the MS13 denied involvement. The Revolucionarios representative said that he was surprised to learn that members of his gang were responsible for the massacre. He said the killers acted without orders, and that the negotiating table served to negate the possibility of revenge killings in the massacre’s aftermath.
“The letters [MS13] and the South [Sureños] demanded payment from us,” the Revolucionarios representative said, adding that the killers “really screwed up bad, and so the Revolution had to collect, and the payment is to kill them.” He insisted that the authors of the massacre acted without any authorization from gang leaders.
Government Provides Stimulus
MS13 and Barrio 18 have been been at war since 1989. The Barrio 18 gang split into two factions in 2005. Each of these three groups considers the other two as mortal enemies. Even though there have been some instances of coordination, it is likely that the relationships between the gangs is still strained.
During the truce, the previous government encouraged the three gangs to maintain relations. The current government is also encouraging the groups to find common ground, although with very different mechanisms: “To me, it’s not the MS that is inviting me to go to war now,” explained the spokesmen of the Sureños. “For me, it’s the government that’s inviting me to war.”
Six months after the the current FMLN government took office in mid-2014, the administration decided to dismantle any existing mechanisms for dialogue with the gangs and condemned the experiment known as the truce. Instead, the government adopted a exclusively repressive strategy to combat the gang phenomenon, making the police and army its protagonists. Operational controls on the security forces’ actions were relaxed, allowing both the police and soldiers to use excessive force, which has even led to massacres.
In response, the gangs killed 64 police and 24 soldiers in 2015, bringing further pressure that was applied both within the law and outside of it. The result: more dead gang members, more arrests, more indiscriminate searches and more torture.
“We started backwards,” the Sureño spokesman rationalized. “Too crazy. When you’re too mad, you say and do stupid things, and we said and did very stupid things. We aren’t happy about this, but things have changed; the government is going to pay its bill,” he said. “But we have left that shit behind. Nobody is using that logic now.”
What the gang member refers to as “that logic” made El Salvador the most violent country on the continent in 2015, with an average of 18 homicides a day and a homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. Things got even worse during the first three months of 2016, with an average of 22 murders a day.
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The San Juan Opico massacre created a perfect storm that allowed the government to rally the country’s political forces behind its repressive strategies: less than a month later, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approval the Sánchez Cerén administration’s package of extraordinary measures.
This rapidly evolving atmosphere prompted the gangs to quickly strengthen their debilitated channels of communication and create a functional system for coordinating their response to government repression. Before the gangs’ mid-level leadership was relocated to the Zacatecoluca Security Prison, a maximum security facility known to gang members as Zacatraz — top leaders had been there since April 2015 — the mid-level leaders struck a new deal between their rival organizations. They agreed that head-on confrontation with state forces was not a sustainable option, and that a change of strategy was needed. That change included putting an end to their street battles with each other.
The gang representatives El Faro encountered while reporting for this article channeled those decisions to gang membership outside prison walls.
The gangs went public with their decision to order members to stop the killing on March 26, 2016. Five days later, on April 1, the legislature approved 14 extraordinary measures that the government had proposed a few days before the mid-level gang leaders were moved to maximum security prison.
The new measures included an emergency protocol that confined prisoners to their cells 24 hours a day. At the same time, they suspended visitation rights and eliminated the statute of limitations for gang-related crimes. These extraordinary measures were put in place for one year. [The prison measures were accompanied by a government offensive on the outside, with the deployment of extra military-back police units to pursue gang members in the streets and in the countryside.]
The number of murders immediately fell by nearly half. The 22 daily killings registered in the first three months of 2016 dropped to 11 for the next three months of the year. Because the government’s extraordinary measures and the gangs’ order to stop the killing came at the same time, both the administration and the gangs are taking credit for bringing down the homicide rate.
“If you have seen the reduction in homicides, it is because the three [gang] sides are not attacking each other,” said the Mara Salvatrucha spokesperson. Meanwhile, the vice president and spokesman for the Security Cabinet, Óscar Ortiz, claimed the reduction of homicides as an official success.
Rapprochement Between Mortal Enemies
For the time being, the rapprochement between gang leaders has produced curious fruit: spokesmen for MS13 reporting the shooting of prisoners who belong to Barrio 18; Barrio 18 faction members speaking in the name of MS13 to explain their agreements; leaders of the Revolucionarios faction promoting a march supporting the rights of a rival faction. These changes seem radical considering that on the street even mentioning the name of a rival gang has been an offense punishable by a severe beating.
There are, however, some signs that the détente is beginning to trickle down to street level. On July 1, reporters from El Faro attended the wake of Jeremías Ezequiel Gonzáles’s at the Valle del Sol community center in Apopa, a densely populated municipality just outside the capital.
The area is a Revolucionarios stronghold, and Gonzáles was a member of that gang. He fell sick inside the Quezaltepeque prison and reportedly passed away en route to the hospital. Gonzáles’ family protested that he had been stricken with a treatable illness, and that his death was the product of negligence on the part of prison officials. They said his was not the only case; the same thing had happened to a member of the rival Sureños faction. This small gesture of solidarity with a rival gang member would have been hard to imagine a year ago.
The Sureño spokesman who said the government “will pay its bill” clarified that he wasn’t talking about starting a war, but rather employing subtler tactics. “If I grab a legislator and cut him up, he will raise Sodom and Gomorra. We’ve learned how to get payback on the government; and that’s in elections.”
The three gangs circulated a joint communique on April 18 saying that they had been betrayed by the FMLN and announcing they would boycott any activity endorsed by the governing party or its ally, the Gana party.
“Our communities will never be areas where the FMLN or Gana can look for votes or party organization. For that reason, we have given instructions in our territories not to allow FMLN or Gana activities, or even the use of their flags, banners, shirts, hats, etc.,” said the document. “Those who have declared war on us cannot hope that they will be accepted in our territories.”
El Faro has in recent months posted two separate videos showing officials of the FMLN and Arena — El Salvador’s major political parties — negotiating with gang members in attempts to gain votes in the 2014 elections.
As was true during the truce, the current drop in homicides has not been matched by a reduction in extortion, which is the gangs’ life blood. In the words of one gang spokesman: “Extortion has not changed and will not change. It could double or triple if we change our stance, and we accept a logic of war, because bullets and guns, you have to pay for.”
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of El Faro. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here. Medardo Gomez photo by Roberto Valencia/El Faro.