In a first, top representatives of El Salvador’s powerful and influential Catholic Church have said the Church would be willing to serve as a mediator in an eventual dialogue between the government and the country’s gangs.
“First, both sides [of the conflict] must ask for it,” San Salvador’s Assistant Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez, said on January 15 in reference to the possible dialogue. “In this situation, it’s vital to see what both sides are proposing in order to establish trust. At this point, the [gangs] rightfully distrust the government, and vice versa. The church has said many times that promoting dialogue is part of its pastoral mission.”
Rosa Chávez’s statement comes less than a week after representatives of the MS13 told El Faro that it was willing to negotiate with the government, something that could also potentially include the dismantling of the gang.
The MS13 also told El Faro this new proposal would allow their members to leave the gang if they choose to do so. This part of the proposal could have profound implications for the MS13. Until now, MS13 rules stipulate that leaving the gang is punishable by death.
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Unlike the 2012 truce between President Mauricio Funes’ administration and the three main gangs in the country — the two factions of the Barrio 18 and the MS13 — this time the Catholic Church hierarchy appears more inclined to participate in the potential dialogue.
The hierarchy’s tone, reflected in Rosa Chávez’s comments, has clearly changed.
“It’s life or death,” the bishop said, referring to the war-like situation between the gangs and the state. “A dialogue is essential, these kids have a right to dream…Those that are on this violent path have a right to rehabilitate themselves.”
And they are giving more signals of their willingness to participate in such a process. Rosa Chávez, for instance, spoke to the Church’s highest authority in El Salvador, the Episcopal Conference, the same group that had rejected the participation of Bishop Fabio Colindres in the 2012 truce between the gangs.
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For its part, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s administration has given mixed signal regarding a dialogue. On one hand, according to a report from Spain’s El Pais, both the Minister of Security and the police chief have rejected the possibility. However, the president’s spokesman has said the government has not ruled it out.
The Catholic Church’s possible intervention could mark a turning point in the conflict between the government and the gangs, which authorities say accounted for the majority of the 5,278 homicides in 2016.