US Official: El Salvador Violence May be Linked to Gang Truce

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During congressional testimony on Central American insecurity, a top US drug official intimated a controversial gang truce could be to blame for El Salvador’s alarming murder rate, now the highest in the Western Hemisphere. 

Testifying on February 11 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, William Brownfield, head of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), said one explanation for El Salvador’s rise in homicides is related to the breakdown of that country’s gang truce, reported La Prensa Gráfica, which was present at the hearing.

While Brownfield said the truce, which was first implemented in March 2012, “brought a temporary reduction [in homicides] and produced temporary results,” he added that it “no longer exists and a theory is that the gangs used it to rearm and reorganize.” (Read Brownfield’s prepared testimony here – pdf) The truce broke down in mid-2014 amid rising levels of violence and a growing number of clashes between gangs and security forces.

The comments came in response to questions by committee members about how violence and insecurity in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) became so pervasive.

Congress recently approved $750 million in aid for the region to combat corruption, organized crime and gangs, in addition to improving border security. Committee members wanted to learn how the money would be spent.

According to a separate report from La Prensa Gráfica, Howard Cotto, director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), remained neutral in response to Brownfield’s remarks about the failed truce as a possible cause of increased violence. “Those are assessments they make,” Cotto said.

El Salvador Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde declined to respond to questions about Brownfield’s testimony, reported La Prensa Gráfica.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador’s gang truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 has been the subject of fierce debate, speculation, and controversy since its inception in 2012.

US officials, however, have consistently maintained their distance from offering a definitive conclusion about the truce, and Brownfield’s comments are perhaps the most open a US official has ever been when discussing it publicly. The United States was not particularly supportive of the truce while it was in effect, and Brownfield has previously advocated for tough anti-gang laws in Central America.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador Gang Truce

Regarding the effects of the truce, however, Brownfield is correct on several fronts. The truce did lead to a temporary reduction in violence. It did allow the gangs to improve their organizational abilities by requiring leaders to exercise greater control over disparate gang “cliques.” And its breakdown led to a subsequent outburst of violence that has made El Salvador the most murderous country on the planet.

It remains unclear if Brownfield considers the truce to be a failed construct, and if he thinks it would have been preferable that it never existed at all. Such a perspective would presume two things. One is that the MS13 and Barrio 18 would not have continued evolving in the absence of a truce. And the other is that violence would not have reached its current levels, which is difficult — if not impossible — to prove. 

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