WASHINGTON — El Salvador’s top security official says he’s confident that the year-long truce between his country’s two largest gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — will continue to hold.
“Homicides have gone down 50 percent,” said Justice and Public Security Minister David Munguía Payés. “El Salvador was known as the second most violent country in the world, with 14 homicides a day. That’s already in the past.”
Munguía, speaking at an April 11 event in Washington, visited the nation’s capital to sign an agreement with the Organization of American States. The OAS pact establishes a technical committee to help maintain the truce and assist El Salvador in bringing violence down while looking for alternatives to gang membership. Munguía was appointed by El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, to serve as a liaison between the Salvadoran government and the technical committee.
Taking the multilateral approach to gang issue
Ambassador Adam Blackwell, secretary for multidimensional security at the OAS, said the technical agreement allows a multilateral, multi-stakeholder approach to the Central American gang crisis.
“One of the criticisms of this [truce] process is that there is no sustainability or structure around it. What we are trying to do is show that there is a technical committee to follow up, and they have been working on this problem,” he said. You have a country of six million people with 60,000 gang members. Imagine that in the context of Colombia, which is much bigger with 45 million people and 9,000 members of the FARC. So this is a huge problem and it needs to be dealt with in a different way than just repression and incarceration.”
Blackwell called for a strategy to slow the growth of El Salvador’s gang while demobilizing them and reintegrating their members into society.
“We need to ensure that these kids have gainful opportunities and access to services, and that they feel they are part of society and not terrorize it. All of this should help rebuild the social fabric and encourage investment and growth. Bringing them here to meet with legislators and organizations gives them a pretty big window of dialogue and discussion which would be very difficult to do in El Salvador. Plus, it raises the awareness of the work of this group and is a new way of thinking.”
Official dispels myths about gang truce
Munguía said a key reason for his visit was to dispel what he says are misconceptions about the truce and how it was finalized.
“There are a whole series of urban legends around this process, such as that there was a lack of transparency, that we had given money to convince the gang leaders to stop killing each other and stop the violence against the Salvadoran people, and none of that is true,” he insisted. “That’s why I’m not here alone; I am part of a group that supports stopping the violence in my country. We have businesspeople, academics, prominent journalists, the Catholic Church and civil society.”
The peace process between the two main Salvadorian gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, began in March 2012, with the decisive impetus of Bishop Fabio Colindres and social leader Raúl Mijango — and with strong support from the OAS.
He noted that El Salvador had been one of the world’s most violent countries, with a homicide rate of 70 per 100,000 inhabitants. In one year, that fell to 24 per 100,000.
Making the truce stick
Within the OAS committee, a humanitarian foundation was established to help coordinate efforts and resources to maintain the truce. One of its members is Salvadoran journalist Paolo Lüers, a columnist for El Diario de Hoy and other local media outlets.
“We’re a type of steering committee to move this process along. It started as a truce but is now becoming a peace process,” he said. “Insecurity and violence was paralyzing the country. Very little attention was being paid to the gangs. But we’ve been able to stop that with dialogue among all sectors of the country. Not only has our homicide rate gone down, we’ve also been able to have the gangs agree to stop attacking the Salvadoran people, such as in the public schools — where the children of the poor are — and in public transportation, which is how most of the population gets around. Those were the two most vulnerable spots for gang violence.”
Lüers said much remains to be done.
“This does not mean that the problem is solved, but at least the violence is going down, not up. An initiative that is just getting off the ground to try and re-integrate these gang members back into society, be it through jobs or schooling, looks promising. We just need to make sure that not only is there a desire to do this, but that there is funding for it.”
Salvadoran immigrant community in U.S. has role to play
This is why Mungúia considered his visit to Washington a priority.
“We are creating a model in El Salvador of violence-free municipalities which wouldn’t have happened in the past because of the gang wars,” he said. “The gangs wouldn’t let government agencies in. We had to do police actions, arrests and detentions in order to go in. Not anymore. There is openness now, and we want to bring jobs.”
Under the agreement Munguía signed with the OAS, the 35-member body will provide financial as well as technical assistance. The large Salvadoran-American community, believed to number nearly two million, also has a role to play in anti-gang efforts, he said.
“We are inviting them to invest in these violence-free municipalities that we’ve established. El Salvador is now a good place to invest in,” he noted. “Violence is going down, not just in homicides, but in robberies and other crimes, and we’re making progress every day.”
OAS officials said they’re looking at how this deal can serve as a model for other Central American countries plagued by gang violence and the problems associated with these groups.