Catholic Church Appears Split on El Salvador Gang Truce

Contradicting statements by two high-ranking clergy members illustrate an apparent rift in the Catholic Church about whether to support El Salvador’s latest possible gang truce.

In a press conference February 8, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas said the Church would not participate in any negotiations amongst gangs and does not support any secret talks between the Church and gang leaders.

Escobar Alas’ statement appears to contradict Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez’s recent declarations on the same matter. In early February, Rosa Chavez said the Catholic Church had opened a “dialogue” with gang leaders.

Both statements follow the announcement in January of a “unilateral” truce between various El Salvador gangs, including the MS13 and Barrio 18, the country’s largest street gangs. The MS13 and Barrio 18 held a tentative and controversial truce together between 2012 and 2014, which fell apart amidst violence and political differences with the government.

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The first gang truce caused a similar rift in the Church. The little known, conservative Bishop Fabio Colindres served as an important mediator for the truce and a key interlocutor with government officials, but he was sidelined from the Catholic Conference of Bishops — the collective body of the Church hierarchy that includes Escobar Alas and Rosa Chavez — which eventually publicly condemned the truce.

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Escobar Alas and Rosa Chavez are two of the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran Catholic Church, so any schism between them is bound to have a far wider impact than the freezing-out of Colindres did.  

What’s more, the apparent rift raises the question about whether the new truce has much of a future. It is, as of now, a mostly gang-based initiative that can only survive with the participation of civil society, businesses, and religious and political leaders. With the Catholic Church appearing to distance itself from the truce, gang leaders may have a hard time convincing others who can give legitimacy (and resources) to their latest effort, especially amidst a skeptical population that consistently said in polls it was against the first truce

The Church’s decision whether to participate in the truce will also influence the government, Jeanne Rikkers of local human rights organization FESPAD told the Christian Science Monitor. And without government support, the truce is unsustainable, she added.

So far, the government has tried to keep its distance from the agreement, even though most believe that it has facilitated contacts between gang leaders despite rising violence between gangs and police