Following the proposal by one of El Salvador’s main gangs to start a dialogue with the government that could end in the group’s dissolution, several political leaders have expressed resistance to the offer.
Spokesmen for the MS13 recently told the news outlet El Faro that the gang wants to enter into negotiations with the Salvadoran government with the aim of reducing the high levels of violence generated by its escalating conflict with the country’s security forces. The spokesmen said they would be open to discussing the possible dissolution of the gang and reintegration of members into society.
Several Salvadoran officials have responded to the MS13’s proposal. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén is officially opposed to negotiations with the country’s gangs, and Vice President Oscar Ortiz’s comments were largely in keeping with this rhetoric. Ortiz said that it is not possible to negotiate with people who are forcefully intimidating the country.
“They have to stop murdering citizens, extorting families, killing police, murdering soldiers,” Ortiz told El Mundo, insisting that the only path for such groups was to “desist.”
“We will not stop, we will continue attacking those who insist on acting outside of the law, and this year we’re going to [attack] even harder,” the vice president said.
However, he acknowledged that repressive state action against criminal groups was not the only option available, and highlighted a bill currently passing through the legislature that aims to facilitate the social reintegration of gang members.
Police Director Howard Cotto bluntly rejected the MS13 proposal. “All that they offer is to continue committing crimes if we don’t negotiate with them and that is utterly wrong…What do they offer? To stop killing or stop extorting? And in return they want something? No! Just stop doing it,” Cotto told El Faro.
Justice and Public Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde said it was not government policy to negotiate with criminal groups, and that these would be “targeted with all of the security forces,” Diario Co Latino reported.
Meanwhile, other government officials expressed more openness to the proposal. As El Faro reported, the President’s Press Secretary Eugenio Chicas did not entirely rule out the possibility of the government considering the gang’s proposal. He said that the official stance against negotiating with gangs was “inflexible…until today.”
“If the president says something else…he has the authority to consider any other option,” he said.
Still, Chicas believed that an agreement with the MS13 would depend on the public’s approval, as well as a consensus between political parties and having the sufficient resources to carry out such a process — conditions he says are unlikely to be met.
“Not only has El Salvador’s society proved to be against any attempt at dialogue or conversation with the gangs, it also vehemently opposes any advantage or legal benefit for these groups,” he said.
Legislative Assembly President Guillermo Gallegos also declined to completely rule out the possibility of negotiations, while admitting that the talks are unlikely to take place.
“The door [to dialogue] can never be totally shut. In this case, alternatives must be sought,” he said in comments reported by Univision. “I must say I’m somewhat incredulous.”
Gallegos added an ultimatum that the gang would “have to hand over their weapons and their leaders have to come out into the open, otherwise they won’t stop being a violent group. I insist that before any negotiations, they must first abandon violence, because it’s difficult to trust them when their lifestyle consists of murder and extortion.”
Opposition politician Donato Vaquerano responded positively to the proposal. “That’s great! It would be great if they stopped their criminal activities,” the National Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) deputy said, according to Univision. However, he added that his party played no role in the possible negotiations.
InSight Crime Analysis
It seems unlikely that the MS13’s proposal will turn into real discussions with the Salvadoran government. Since entering office in 2014, President Sanchez Cerén has adopted tough security measures against the gangs, while staunchly rejecting any revival of a controversial 2012 truce between the MS13 its rival, the Barrio 18. Recently implemented legal measures outlawed engaging in negotiations with gangs and authorities arrested several people involved in the 2012 truce shortly after their passage.
One of the main roadblocks to opening a dialogue with gangs is a lack of public support for the idea. “Given the extreme distaste among the general public for the idea of negotiation with the gangs, I certainly do not expect the government to agree to any kind of open dialogue,” wrote Salvadoran politics expert Tim Muth in a recent blog post.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
Moreover, regardless of the government’s stance, the total disbanding of the MS13 is hardly a feasible concept. While gang leaders have a certain level of control over its street-level members, the group’s lack of a strongly hierarchical leadership structure would make it difficult to ensure that all factions of the gang would come on board with the process. Adding to this dynamic is the fact that many rank and file gang members rely on extortion and other criminal activities to sustain themselves and their families, giving them little incentive to enter the legitimate sphere of society.
But if dialogue is not a viable way forward, violent repression alone is not much more promising. Even Police Director Cotto acknowledged to El Faro that the state’s iron fist approach has not been as effective as was hoped. Keeping the pressure on the gangs may weaken them, but other social and political initiatives are more likely to generate positive long-term results.