El Salvador’s largest street gangs have indicated they wield sufficient power to influence the country’s presidential elections, in a statement highlighting the gangs’ use of violence as a political tool.
In a press release sent out to Salvadoran media, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs — known as “maras” — stated that ruling party the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) almost lost the 2014 presidential election because the party did not have the support of the gangs. La Pagina published the statement on February 27, just two days before El Salvador’s March 1 municipal and congressional elections.
The apparent joint statement said the maras “have been used” by the FMLN, who have “turned their backs” on the country’s 2012 gang truce brokered by government mediators and a bishop from the Catholic Church. The truce broke down during the first half of 2014 amid rising homicides, and President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has rejected the possibility of starting new dialogue with the gangs since taking office in June 2014.
The mara leaders added they “know the [current] government will no longer be in power in five years,” after the next presidential election.
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The release of the Barrio 18 and MS13 statement just days before El Salvador’s congressional elections is the latest example of the gangs’ efforts to exert influence over the country’s political landscape. The maras agreed to a new truce to reduce violence in January. This time without the support of the Church or the government, the move appeared to be an attempt to show the Salvadoran population that they, not the Sanchez Ceren administration, hold the keys to the country’s security situation.
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The gangs have vested interests in El Salvador’s political landscape. Former president Mauricio Funes agreed to transfer 30 MS13 and Barrio 18 gang leaders to lower-security prisons as part of the 2012 truce, however Sanchez Ceren has recently sent many of the leaders back to a maximum-security facility. The Sanchez Ceren administration has also supported the use of stronger police tactics against criminals, and one top security official recently stated the country is “at war” with the gangs.
But it is unclear how much power the gangs currently have over violence in El Salvador. The 2012 gang truce is widely credited with dropping the country’s homicide rate from 70 per 100,000 in 2011 to almost half that number in 2012 and 2013. However, the most recent truce has yet to produce comparative results: El Salvador registered an average of 11 murders per day in February, which is near pre-2012 truce homicide levels.