Guatemalan President Seeks ‘Alternative’ Approach to Gangs

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Guatemalan President Otto Perez has said he would not rule out alternative strategies for dealing with “mara” gangs in his country, including dialogue between rival groups, following the success of a gang truce in neighboring El Salvador.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he is promoting a reform of drug policy, Perez said his administration was “looking for another way to treat [the gangs],” El Diario de Hoy reported.

Perez highlighted the truce between El Salvador’s principal gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, which entered its second phase this week with the launch of the first of 18 planned “peace zones,” where gang members have agreed to stop all criminal activities. Since the truce was brokered last year, the homicide rate has dropped by more than half.

However, Perez noted that the situation in his country was different to that in El Salvador, as Guatemala’s maras were not fighting amongst themselves, but were competing in various types of crime.

Later that day, Perez clarified that his government was “not disposed to hold dialogues with the maras,” as Prensa Libre reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

Perez’s comments are an indication of the attention that El Salvador’s gang truce is getting from governments across the region.

Murders in El Salvador have been cut dramatically, and if gang members are to be believed, residents in specially designated “peace zones” around the country will soon see a reduction in other crimes like kidnapping, and extortion.

Guatemala’s interior minister said that the Salvadoran truce was “worth studying,” after attending a conference in El Salvador in May last year. Leaders of Guatemala’s Barrio 18 have stated that they would be interested in negotiations with the government.

However, as Perez notes, Guatemala would not be able to simply replicate El Salvador’s sharp cut in murders, as the dynamics of crime are very different in the two countries. The presence of other powerful criminal groups such as the Zetas in Guatemala means street gangs are not as important a driver of murders as they are in El Salvador.

In addition to this, even though El Salvador’s gang truce has yielded impressive results, bargaining with criminal groups for a cut in homicides could set a dangerous precedent, encouraging gangs to threaten further violence if their demands are not met. There are also concerns that the El Salvadoran maras may have used the ceasefire to reorganize and build up a political influence.

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