El Salvador Gangs Expand Truce to School Zones

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In a joint communique, El Salvador’s two largest gangs have promised to extend their cease-fire to school zones, as well as bring an end to forced recruitment, a positive development allegedly brokered by the same bishop credited with bringing about an earlier drop in homicides.

The communique was presented in the Quezaltepeque prison, also known as La Libertad, in the presence of some two dozen members of the media. Also in attendance were Bishop Fabio Colindres and ex-congressman Raul Mijango, supposed architects of the March 2012 truce that seems to have prompted a significant drop in the country’s homicide rates.

The announcement, apparently endorsed by the leadership of both the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, reads:

“We have considered making a second gesture of good faith, which consists of declaring all scholarly centers of the country, public and private, as zones of peace; that is to say, they are no longer to be considered disputed territories, which will permit the students and teachers to carry on with their educational activities with all normality, and the families of the students will be liberated of all worry when they send their children to school… We also declare that henceforth, all involuntary recruitment of adults and children into our ranks will cease.”

The communique was read aloud by Victor Antonio Garcia Ceron, top spokesman for the so-called Revolutionary, or “R,” faction of Barrio 18 and one of the gang leaders transferred by the government into a prison with more lax security earlier this year.

Gang member Ludwing Alexander Rivera said the widespread practice of extortion would continue until conditions emerged in which gang members and their families were able to make up for the loss in revenue that would result from the cessation of the practice, as El Faro reports.

InSight Crime Analysis

This is the latest piece of good news out of El Salvador, which has registered a dramatic 60 percent drop in homicides since the early March 2012 truce apparently negotiated by Bishop Fabio Colindres. If the gangs truly enforce the ceasefire in El Salvador’s school districts, this could help violence levels drop even further. El Faro notes that some students are mistakenly targeted as rival gang members due to wearing the uniforms of schools “owned” by other gangs. The expansion of the truce also heads off a controversial security measure by the government: the proposed militarization of the country’s schools.

If the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are actually sincere about — and capable of — enforcing this latest order, the expanded gang truce will likely reinforce the security gains of the past two months. But even as the government has shown signs of adopting a more community-oriented security strategy, including a proposed a $20 million jobs program aimed at rehabilitating gang members, the government still appears willing to expands its law enforcement capabilities, preparing to open a US-funded wiretap center and deploying an elite anti-gang police unit.

Given that both of these operations are strongly focused on intelligence gathering and investigation, El Salvador may be shifting away from the failed “iron fist” policies of the past and toward smarter policing. This may be necessary to ensure long-term security, given that many gangs in El Salvador operate relatively independently from the mostly incarcerated leadership of MS-13 and Barrio 18, raising questions about the truce’s permanence. And while the gangs have apparently agreed to reduce violence, they still practice other criminal activities: extortion is reportedly up 25 percent this year, a practice El Salvador’s gangs did not rule out at La Libertad.

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