Promoter of Talks with El Salvador’s Gangs Loses Faith (Part 2)

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The following is part two of El Faro’s interview with Raul Mijango. In the interview, Mijango — a former guerrilla turned politician turned gang negotiator — explains why he thinks the US shoulders some of the blame for the end of the truce, what role the media played in demonizing the process, and what he is going to do now that he is no longer working on forging a gang truce.

Returning to the chronological story of the end of the truce. Was there a trigger that led the government to, almost overnight, rule out dialogue as an option?

In the months after Sanchez Ceran came to power and until the end of the year, rumor had it that the US government was pushing to close the option for dialogue. There was a huge demand to return gang leaders to the Zacatecoluca prison’s newly built, and much stricter, Sector 6. Which the United States had funded, and was why they were urging the government use it.

You give credit to these theories?

They came to me to say that. Then, there is the element of pressure for the Fomilenio II funds. Then came the pressure over resources that the United States was offering through the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras]. In that sense, to the extent that the US increased its offering of resources, it has forced the government to have a policy that pleases its main financier.

Do you think that the US Embassy had a role in the boycott of the truce?

Of course! To the extent that the United States has demonized me.

This is part two of a story that originally appeared in El Faro’s Sala Negra, a version of which was translated and reprinted with permission. See part one here. Spanish original here

Demonized? They denied you a visa, just like they deny thousands of Salvadorans?

To me, my ex-wife… I recently went to Europe and, when I was already on the plane and about to take off, some gringo officers suddenly came for me, and they began taking photos of all the documents I was carrying, including invitation letters. And when I came back, I couldn’t get into Panama because the United States said so. So I had to stay waiting at an airport in Europe, and I had to change my route to land in Costa Rica, because in Panama I could not (land). But I accept it, because all my life I’ve been a man willing to pay the price of my decisions. And the US is prosecuting me for the truce we started. It affected the work of the FBI in the Salvadoran jails.

How did it affect the work of the FBI?

They had gang informants in the prisons, and some (of those informants) told the FBI to go to hell. These leaders told them that for years they had been given barely anything, and that supporting the process was more useful for the country. They stopped talking so much that there were times when FBI officials asked us to mediate so former informants would receive and talk with them. What happened then? The prisoners themselves told me that I was no jackass, and not to help the FBI because, during the the time they had spoken, for fifty minutes the FBI were asking about me, looking for ways to fuck me over.

Amongst these behind the scenes maneuvers that you’ve told us happened during the truce, what was the role of Attorney General Luis Martinez?

I think that images speak louder than words. When they dismissed David Munguia Payes as Minister of Security after the ruling of the Constitutional Chamber [that Munguia Payes, as a military officer, could not hold a position designated for civilians], the first photographs that Minister Perdomo sought to take were of him surrounded by US Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte and Attorney General Luis Martinez. That’s a message! I saved that picture.

Would you say that, at least on the issue of the truce, the attorney general has been an operator of US interests?

Operator… I don’t know, but the stance the attorney general has had against the process has been consistent with the position of the US Embassy in El Salvador.

And Ricardo Perdomo?

The same.

You have identified Sanchez Ceren’s speech in January as the final straw of the government. Would you say that the national bus strike symbolizes the same on the part of the gangs?

No. As far as I know, the first day of the transport strike was a coordinated action by all the gangs, but the other days it was only supported by the Barrio 18 Revolucionaries. So I do not think the comparison works because not all the groups participated. It was a strong act but not necessarily a response to the speech by President Sanchez Ceren.

Is there an action or event that represents the final blow by the gangs?

I don’t think so… What I see is a process of escalating levels of confrontation between gangs and the State. And that has been reflected recently with increasing fighting and casualties on both sides.

The truce had two components: the cessation of hostilities between gangs, and the gangs’ commitments with the government. When the latter disappears, do the agreements between the gangs do as well?

No. After the truce I saw them working in some ways together, coinciding at least in thought. On the ground level there will be clashes, but, at more strategic levels, yes, there is more synergy today than before the truce.

When you say there are 700 structures in pure anarchy, does that mean that the leaders who handled the truce no longer have control?

I would not say so. I would say that there is no longer a peace process, and as such palabreros [leaders] are not giving speeches aimed at reducing violence.

The doubt was whether the current cycle of killing is due to a weakening of the leaders or, on the contrary, because they are ordering violence to be unleashed.

There is more autonomy now… because you no longer have the incidence level of the gangs’ leadership with the territorial actors seeking to resolve problems. This no longer exists, and now no one is asking them to reduce violence. With the gangs, when there is someone in authority calling your attention and telling you not to do something, you are automatically endorsing what they do.

Can you elaborate?

Before, what happened was that, due to the truce, there was a higher level of centralization, which even allowed the identification of someone when they jumped the yard [committed an error]. Today, as there is more looseness and more autonomy in how to behave, there is a leadership vacuum. They do not restore order because they do not feel the need to restore order.

In this anarchy that you point to, what do you make of the idea of the “Mara 503,” a super-structure that in theory would bring together the Barrio 18 and MS-13? How is it possible to give credence to this idea with 700 uncontrolled cliques and mutual hatreds that have become entrenched over decades?

First, I must say that this is an initiative of theirs! I do not know if you’ve seen the videos that have been appearing on YouTube where they have been calling for the gangs to unite, which is the expression of that debate: “Here we are facing the same challenge and it is necessary to unite.”

Those videos contradict the reality that they are still killing each other.

Yes, but the fact that they are having this discussion is qualitatively important because it could radically transform this whole phenomenon that continues to evolve and mutate. In what direction is it mutating? Towards a conflict that is increasingly having political overtones, which it previously did not have but does now. I do not know if they have determined in all the discussion that today they have some gang alliances. Have you not felt more class conflict?

There are people in the government that hold you responsible for certain actions that get to this point: that you are a kind of political and strategic advisor to gangs.

[Laughs] For the knowledge that history has allowed me to have of the gang phenomenon, I have developed a capability that I did not have, which is foretelling where things are evolving on this issue. I remember when you asked me what would happen if the truce failed… what did I say?

That there would be many more murders.

It’s simple logic! It should be viewed in a proactive sense: I came warning what will happen if things continue in the wrong direction. Why? Because unfortunately, as opposed to some, I have one advantage: I have already lived an entire conflict, and I know how things evolve. Some have said, “What you are doing is telling the gangs what to do.” But no. It’s simply that my experience allows me to predict where things are going, because they are experiences I have already lived. Why have I done this? To try to sensitize those with decision-making powers to reflect, to convince them that it is not true we are on the right track.

Do you believe the government cannot win the declared low intensity war against the gangs?

In war there are different concepts of victory. One of these is the Pyrrhic victory. It is when you, to obtain a result, have paid a much larger share than what you won. Of course the act of genocide can, somehow…

Genocide is a big word…

We have 700 dead people every month.

But many of those are victims of the gangs themselves.

But these dead are ours as a country.

Genocide can only occur when a State massively eliminates its citizens, and this is not happening.

For me, genocide is when an enormous amount of people die in a short period of time for the same reason. If they tell me in five years that violence levels have decreased in the country, and daily killings have dropped to an average of six or seven, but to achieve this we had to pay 30,000 or 40,000 dead Salvadorans, I would question the concept of victory.

Many believe that gang members cannot be “rehabilitated,” and use the truce as an example proving their argument because they used this moment of peace to gain territory, to consolidate their structures…

That is an argument of the critics, but it is not true.

That they didn’t win more territory?

No way! What the truce did was to expose a hidden truth.

The gangs were already what they are. But during the truce, especially in rural areas, they settled in places where before they did not have a presence.

It is not true. We held off recruitment, the gangs did not grow during that time. Income from crime and extortion went down a lot. We removed weapons…That they strengthened as a political actor, that I can agree with, because throughout that period they were obviously a political actor. But in the other respects what I feel the truce did was to expose (what they were already doing).

Do you think the gang member, as an active gang member, can be rehabilitated?

From my experience I say yes.

Did you rehabilitate many?

I am rehabilitated! Many do not like it, but I lived the experience of the dismantling of the FMLN’s military structures. And there were many people I could qualify as having been transformed by the war, and many of them were rehabilitated and many of them live quiet and honest lives, even in the United States itself.

You insist on the analogy with the FMLN, but the thing is that the guerrillas disarmed as a military structure…

And that’s what we wanted to do with the gangs.

Was the intent of the truce to work towards dismantling the MS-13 and the two Barrio 18 factions?

No, the idea was to renounce violence. I always made this distinction, because I think it is wrong to come with the idea of dismantling them as structures, dismantling their image, their way of life, because it is already a subculture.

You imagine the Mara Salvatrucha would convert into… what? Into an association, or what? You, the ex-guerrillas, became a political party. What will the MS-13 become? A political party as well?

If they stop violence, I would ask, why not!? If the problem here is the problem of violence, that is what we must work for these groups to renounce.

Suppose that’s achieved… There is a type of violence that goes beyond killing, which involves power relations within communities. For example, when mothers and wives of prisoners travel via bus to the prison of Ciudad Barrios, the other passengers get up to give them their seats. This relationship of distorted coexistence, this throne the gangs have ascended, how can this be dismantled?

With a lot of emotional intelligence. I was at one point, between my bouts of madness, partial to the idea that you had to convert a good portion of the gang structure into a kind of auxiliary agent for community safety. Something to turn the tables: you pay them for providing security in their territories.

The Italian Mafia charged to provide security, but the reality was that they charged not to fuck with you. If the State pays for gang members to be agents of peace, would it not actually be paying them to not fuck with people?

And if they were under the jurisdiction of the National Police (PNC)?

Convert gang members into police officers!?

Into auxiliaries. I say this because the best experience we had on reintegrating ex-combatants were those who entered into the PNC.

It’s not the same. How is a society like ours going to process what you’re proposing?

If the result is positive, it is processed.

The truce reduced homicides by more than half over 15 months, and the average Salvadoran hated the truce and hated you.

Because the media, including El Faro, said everything was the same, that nothing had changed…But we dropped from 14 to 5 murders [per day]! They never recognized the value of the process. If you do not give the benefit of the doubt… the process was just starting! It was not given the possibility to develop.

Returning to the original point…Do you think the option of dialogue is impossible to revive?

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Why did I make the decision to no longer be involved in seeking peace alternatives over the short- or medium-term? Because I became convinced there is no national capacity, with national actors, to find a solution to this problem. I feel we have become too polarized, and that somehow we have demonized one another. And that the (security) council ended up being a puppet that only served to justify and legitimize the government’s repressive action in the past year. Hence, the idea is gaining strength that it will have to be international actors who seek or help to find solutions.

In practice, what does it mean that you no longer consider yourself the spokesman of the truce process?

It means that this space from which I have been working in recent years is a space that is not going to be used towards that end. In fact, I’m turning over this office, and this task is no longer going to be my priority, because I am going to attend to other issues. I am going to support a peace process where there are no preconceptions impeding the pursuit of peace: the peace process in Colombia.

You’re already working on it?

I’m working in that direction and I think it is an excellent opportunity. It seems to me what is being built there should be a model. By considering unilateral action, such as that aiming to promote the initiative to reintegrate gang members… the danger of that is it being stuck in a media crisis, because who you have to take the word of is the active gang member, right? And if you’re not taking him into account, or don’t even want to talk to him, what are you going to do she he can decide to access the benefits of the law? It is too naive to expect that in a conflict only one side determine the rules. I will also begin to dedicate part of my efforts to a topic that I left voluntarily: politics. Today I am convinced that the country needs real political choices to change this reality.

A political party?

I’m thinking, I’m floating this idea with some of my friends who share my thesis, and I think that will be part of my next endeavors. We will work to build an alternative that helps resolve two things for the population: resolve the problem of violence, which we know how to do! And second, solve the problem of poverty, but not through socialism. In the entire the history of mankind, socialism has not resolved poverty for anyone. Poverty is solved by generating wealth, and that is what we will propose.

*This is part two of a story that originally appeared in El Faro’s Sala Negra, a version of which was translated and reprinted with permission. See part one here. See Spanish original here.

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