How El Salvador’s Gang Truce Redefined the Geography of Violence

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Homicide levels in El Salvador have slowly increased since the middle of 2013 and have reached levels similar to those of 2011. The country’s gang truce is dead and President Sanchez Ceren announced last January that he would not continue the dialogue with the gangs. But a detailed analysis of data and maps offers surprising conclusions: the process appears to be well established in many areas of El Salvador.

Just before completing three years, the truce died. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren signed its death warrant in January. “We will not return to the scheme of understanding and negotiating with the gangs because this is at the margin of the law,” he said following a meeting with police chiefs. With this sentence he not only acknowledged that the administration of former President Mauricio Funes, in which Sanchez Ceren served as vice president, began a dialogue with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 in early 2012. He also finally resolved, at least officially, the prolonged question of whether the new administration, which took office in June 2014, would continue with this effort.


The truce has changed your essence, El Salvador


And if the birth of the truce radically reduced homicides (see graph below), after its death El Salvador returned to normal. In the first weeks of January 2015, the country saw 14 murders a day, the same homicide average seen before March 9, 2012. The gangs continue to be a criminal phenomenon capable of raising or reducing homicides in a snap, as evidenced once again, temporarily, after January 17, 2015 when they gave an order to reduce murders. The gangs were strong in 2012. They still are today.

But although the averages before and after the truce are similar, if you dig a little below the surface you can see that Salvadorans are not dying in the same places. The truce changed the country’s black map: areas that were once ultraviolent are now less so, and zones that were calm are hotbeds today.

This article was originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

The truce was a pact of three parties endorsed by the Mara Salvatrucha, the Barrio 18, and the government of former President Funes, although with time other players were added: the Organization of American States, La Mirada Locos gang, the Catholic Church, the Mao-Mao gang, and others. The process, which seemed to herald a new stage in El Salvador’s security policies and in its history of violence, began to weaken after Funes restructured his security cabinet in June 2013, and remained in a deep coma throughout the following year.

And if the words of Sanchez Ceren symbolized the death warrant, the process was buried with the return of the principal gang “spokesmen” to Zacatecoluca Maximum Security Prison. If the current government or any future government seeks a dialogue with the gangs, they will have to build a new process on the grave of the former one. And they will do so on a map of violence different from that of early 2012.


As for murders, 2014 and 2011 were very similar, with daily averages of 11 and 12 homicides, respectively. On this basis, and keeping in mind that murders are only one of the wide variety of crimes committed by gangs, La Sala Negra compared both years, town by town, to try to establish which areas were plagued by violence, and which areas saw violence decrease during the truce. In other words, to present the parts of the country where the truce was either strong or weak.

The data used was provided by the National Civil Police (PNC) and, to calculate the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants, the most recent updates to the DIGESTYC (Department of Statistics and Census) population estimate, dated September 2014, were used. Using these figures, micro-regions have been identified in which murders increased the most between 2011 and 2014, before and after the truce. These micro-regions are not necessarily the most violent, because one important variable used to rank them was the situation in these areas three years ago. That is, the map shows in blue and red the places where the homicide rate changed the most, for better or for worse.

Three ideas stand out at first glance: one, that the metropolitan area of ​​San Salvador ceased to be the most problematic area in terms of murders; two, that the incidence of homicides is significantly lower in municipalities near the borders; and three, that the country’s central zone (Cuscatlan, La Paz, Cabañas, and Usulutan provinces) has become arguably the most violent in El Salvador.

Regions Where the Truce Was Weak

There are areas of El Salvador where murders increased by over 200 percent between 2011 and 2014. The ranking of the most problematic regions (in this article, the authors refer to areas united by having a similar behavior) is led by a group of towns located on the border between the departments of Usulutan and San Miguel, with Santiago de Maria, Jucuapa, Chinameca, Santa Elena and Concepcion Batres as prominent examples. Each of the 14 municipalities in this group is home to more than 190,000 Salvadorans, and in these municipalities murders increased from 59 to 194.

Other “red zones” that were created during the 34 months of the truce are the eastern shore of Lake Suchitlan, both Chalateco and Cuscatlan municipalities; towns and counties on the road to the port of La Libertad (like Zaragoza, San Jose Villanueva, and Huizucar); the area where the departments of San Salvador, La Libertad, and Chatelanango meet (such as El Paisnal, San Pablo Tacachico, and Tejutla); the Izalco-Nahuizalco axis; and the municipalities located in the Bay of Jiquilisco.

Other areas deserve a more detailed explanation due to their large populations. The first is the area around Cojutepeque-El Carmen-Santa Cruz, Michapa-Monte, San Juan-San Pedro Perulapan, with branches of excessive violence that reach San Martin, east up to Ilobasco, and south to the small municipalities in the northern area of the department of La Paz. It is a populous region — more than 350,000 inhabitants in 16 municipalities — in which the number of Salvadorans killed annually passed from 177 before the truce to 446 afterwards. The current rate is 127 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly twice that of Honduras.

The other surprising region is Zacatecoluca and its surrounding areas, comprising the Nonualcos (Santiago and San Juan), San Rafael Obrajuelo, and Tecoluco, with the latter located in the department of San Vicente. It is a region of 170,000 inhabitants in which homicides jumped from 110 to 210. La Sala Negra published an article in November entitled “The Rebellion that Made Zacatecoluca Bleed,” which addresses the reasons for the explosion of violence.

Finally, the truce was weak in San Salvador and Mejicanos. The increases in these municipalities are not as strong as in the aforementioned regions, but they are significant because they escape the dominant trend in the metropolitan area of ​​the capital, where the number of homicides dropped between 2011 and 2014.

Regions Where the Truce Was Strong

Given widespread hostility in society towards the truce process, perhaps the most surprising finding is that there are wide regions of the country in which 2014 murder figures remained similar to those of 2012 and 2013, when the entire country saw a sharp decline in murders as a direct result of the truce.

In almost all of these areas, at the local level, with the participation of mayors, NGOs, and churches, the truce was interpreted as an opportunity to implement new policies, and the data suggest that these initiatives had some level of effectiveness. 

The first surprise among the areas that benefited from the truce is the metropolitan area of ​​Sonsonate, including the city of Acajutla. There are five municipalities — which are home to more than 200,000 Salvadorans — where murders fell from 285 in 2011 to 70 in 2014, a decrease of 75 percent from 142 to 37 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. This is a case worthy of further study, but the data indicate that something was done well during the truce; it is not hard to connect the decrease in homicides with the investments and dynamics that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched in previous years.

In almost all of these areas, the truce was interpreted as an opportunity to implement new policies, and the data suggest that these initiatives had some level of effectiveness

The specific case of Acajutla was also addressed by La Sala Negra last December in another extensive report entitled “The Alleged Miracle of Acajutla.”

Other places that were a positive surprise for their relative calm in 2014 are the departmental capital of San Vicente; the central area of the department of La Libertad, with San Juan Opico and Ciudad Arce mainly responsible for the decline in murders; the municipalities near the border of El Amatillo; the municipalities of Santa Tecla and Antiguo Cuscatlan, whose rate of 16 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is more typical of Costa Rica than El Salvador; and the Panchimalco-Olocuilta-San Juan Talpa-Puerto de La Libertad area.

Because of their large population and symbolism, it is worth mentioning that homicides also fell by more than half in the two main cities of the interior: San Miguel and Santa Ana. The latter extended its aura of relative calm to surrounding municipalities like Texistepeque, Nueva Concepcion, and San Sebastian Salitrillo.

Lastly, the truce appears to have had a positive effect on the metropolitan area of ​​San Salvador, with the exceptions of the San Salvador and Mejicanos municipalities. Murders fell from 174 to 138 in Soyapango; from 81 to 45 in Tonacatepeque; from 104 to 84 in Ciudad Delgado; from 50 to 27 in San Marcos; from 45 to 10 in Ayutuxtepeque; from 65 to 37 in Cuscatancingo. These figures represent significant reductions in the number of Salvadorans killed.

Within the metropolitan area is Ilopango. Its mayor, Salvador Ruano, was questioned sharply by anti-truce sectors of the population for betting on the dialogue with gang members and supporting them with productive integration projects, but the numbers back up his initiatives. He took the reins of a municipality in which murders rarely fell below 100 a year, and for three consecutive years the number of homicides has stabilized at around 50, with a rate in 2014 of 39 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, far below the national average.

And the Sanctuary Municipalities?

By mid-2012, murders in El Salvador had stabilized to around five a day, something unknown since the country’s Peace Accords. In this context, mediators Raul Mijango and Monsignor Fabio Colindres conceived — with the incoming president — the second phase of what its promoters began calling a pacification process: the cornerstone was the creation of “special zones of peace,” which were initially named Sanctuary Municipalities.

In a public statement issued on November 22, the two mediators laid out ten conditions for a city to be considered a Sanctuary Municipality. These included nonaggression between gangs, a commitment by the gangs to gradually eliminate all crimes, police commitment to avoid indiscriminate nighttime raids and to avoid persecuting gang members, and the involvement of mayors and other local actors to generate employment options for social inclusion.

The initiative was met with hostility from opponents of the truce, including the major media outlets, to the point that the mediators had to change the name “Sanctuary Municipalities” as a result of the visceral campaign mounted against it. The name was changed to “Municipalities Free from Violence.”

In January of 2013, the first four municipalities were presented: Ilopango, Quezaltepeque, Sonsonate, and Santa Tecla. Over the following weeks the figure rose to 11: Apopa, San Vicente, La Libertad, Zacatecoluca, Ciudad Delgado, Nueva Concepcion, and Puerto El Triunfo. 

In all of these municipalities, there were public events in which gang members committed themselves to reducing violence. Then came the shakeup of the security cabinet in June 2013, and the issue of Municipalities Free from Violence virtually disappeared from the media agenda, although the mediators continued working on it with international financial support.

What happened to homicide rates in the Municipalities Free from Violence? Of the 11, a higher number of homicides was only registered in Puerto El Triunfo and Zacatecoluca in 2014, compared to 2011. Mijango tried to justify this increase by stating that “in Zacate they soared due to the internal rupture of the Revolucionarios [gang] as well as the police death squads.”


In the other seven municipalities it is as if, instead of three years, three decades had passed

In Quezaltepeque and Apopa murders decreased, but the reduction was modest. However, in these two municipalities, the mayors did not fulfill the program’s requirements.

In the other seven municipalities it is as if, instead of three years, three decades had passed. In the departmental capital of Sonsonate murders dropped from 126 in 2011 to 33 in 2014; in Santa Tecla, from 53 to 21; in San Vicente, from 64 to 20; in Nueva Concepcion, from 27 to 12; in Ciudad Delgado, from 104 to 84; in La Libertad, from 54 to 11; and in Ilopango, as already noted, from 117 to 50. In these municipalities it seems as if the truce remained strong in 2014, since they escaped the widespread increase in homicides registered in El Salvador as a whole.

What happened to these mayors — who dared to support the dialogue — during the municipal elections of March 1? In the heated debates on social networks mostly everything about the truce is denigrated. According to a survey by the Central American University (UCA) published in December, eight out of ten Salvadorans are against having a dialogue with gangs in order to reduce violence. The election was presented as a good thermometer to measure whether the communities in the “Municipalities Free of Violence” — those citizens who most closely live with the consequences of the phenomenon of gangs and can better assess whether or not there have been improvements — supported the mayors who bet on direct dialogue with the gangs to solve the problems of violence and social coexistence.

Well, if you exclude Apopa and Quezaltepeque because they withdrew from the process after barely starting, and Santa Tecla because the mayor who promoted the initiative did not aspire to reelection, only three mayors were reproached by their constituents. But in five cities (Ilopango, Sonsonate, Ciudad Delgado, Zacatecoluca and San Vicente), citizens endorsed the mayors who promoted peace processes without excluding the gangs.

*This article was originally published in El Faro’s Sala Negra and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

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