Purported gang leaders in El Salvador have instructed rank and file members to stop committing homicides, but it’s unclear if the gangs possess the organizational cohesion to adhere to the orders.
On March 26, individuals who said they were representatives of the MS13 and two factions of the Barrio 18 announced in a video circulated by local TV that they had issued a directive to all their members to put an end to gang violence. (See video below)
A masked speaker said the gangs were taking this action to “show that…it is not necessary to implement measures that violate our constitution.”
The spokesperson was likely referring to the Salvadoran government’s plan to implement emergency measures in some neighborhoods that would limit rights to public assembly and movement. Additional measures are aimed at gaining greater control over the country’s prison system.
The representative closed with a warning to the government, saying that it will “not be able to put an end to the gangs” since they are “part of the Salvadoran community.”
In response to the video, Eugenio Chicas, spokesman for President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, said the government would not negotiate with gangs, reported La Prensa Grafica. Chicas also said the planned implementation of the emergency measures will be carried out on schedule.
On March 26, National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto questioned the validity of the video, saying gang messages have previously been disseminated that were later found to be fake.
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There are indications that the video may be credible. Raul Mijango, a principal mediator involved in El Salvador’s 2012 gang truce, told the Associated Press that he “had previously received some information that [the gangs] were thinking about sending a message.” In addition, the journalist who published the video has been known to publish credible gang messages in the past.
But even if the video is legitimate, there are questions about whether gang leaders have enough control over their base to significantly reduce homicides. According to the police, there were 17 homicides nationwide on Saturday and nine on Sunday, for a weekend average of 13 per day. That is roughly half of the daily average of 23 homicides in days leading up to the weekend, but more time and data is needed to determine if this represents a trend.
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The 2012 truce between the Barrio 18 and MS13 initially led to a dramatic drop in homicides. After the unraveling of the truce, however, authorities sent imprisoned gang leadership back to maximum-security facilities, providing an opportunity for mid-ranking members unhappy with the truce to take more control. The gangs now appear to be fracturing into smaller, competing cells that owe less allegiance to the central leadership. This gang atomization process is believed to be a key reason why murders in El Salvador skyrocketed to over 100 per 100,000 residents last year, the highest homicide rate of any nation in the world not at war.
Meanwhile, the government’s response to the video reaffirms its opposition to cooperating with the gangs in any fashion. The Sánchez Cerén administration has steadfastly refused to restart negotiations, and security officials have instead employed increasingly heavy-handed policing tactics to combat the gangs.