El Salvador’s Government Wants to Make Sure Nobody Tries to Negotiate a Gang Truce Again

The arrest of 18 people for allegedly committing crimes while they helped negotiate the last truce in 2012 appears to rule out any alternative to the government’s “iron fist” approach to the country’s brutal criminal gangs.
May 5, 2016, 10:10pm
Imagen por Ulises Rodríguez/EPA

El Salvador's government has taken its hard line against the country's street gangs to a new level by arresting 18 people who helped put together a gang truce four years ago.

Those arrested include Raúl Mijango, the former head of the negotiations that led to the 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 street gangs that produced a dramatic, though brief, drop in the country's spine-chilling murder rate.

The rest of the detainees are reportedly former officials, along with psychologists, teachers, and legal advisers who participated in the talks leading up to the truce that hinged on the cooperation of gang leaders in prison. The authorities are also seeking the arrest of a further three people.

The attorney general's office said that the arrests, that took place on Tuesday, are associated with charges of illicit association, smuggling prohibited items into prisons, and falsifying documents.

Attorney General Douglas Meléndez told reporters that the truce itself was not illegal, though he said it had helped make the gangs stronger. The alleged crimes, he said, were related to illegal benefits gang leaders obtained in prison while the negotiations were underway.

The arrests come as the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cern receives criticism for the intensification of its already tough crackdown on the gangs, both because of allegations of rampant human rights abuse, and because the murder rate keeps breaking records anyway.

Just days before his arrest, Mijango told VICE News that the government's insistence on seeking to win the battle against the criminal gangs with repression alone was pushing El Salvador towards a new civil war, 24 years after it ended the last one with peace accords.

"Some of us feel that the country is already in the middle of a war because this is not just a criminal problem, it is a social problem," the former left-wing guerrilla said, highlighting the fact that an estimated 11 percent of the national population is involved in the gangs in one way or another. "It requires a strategy that goes far beyond the punitive."

Mijango was referring to a series of recent measures including last month's passage of legislation that classifies gangs as terrorist organizations. The changes also foresee 15-year sentences for anybody who gets involved in any kind of negotiation with them.

Related: El Salvador's Gangs Offered a Truce –– And the Government Declared War

The government also recently launched a new special military unit to pursue gang members in rural areas, and faced allegations from the country's human rights ombudsman of extrajudicial killings.

Meanwhile, El Salvador ended last year as the most violent peacetime nation in the world with a murder rate of 104 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. This year the national police reported 2,230 people killed up until April 20. That's an increase of 158 percent from the same period in 2015.

According to police figures, there have been 130 shootouts between the security forces and street gangs so far this year in which 159 gang members were killed. The same figures show that only three police officers and two soldiers have died in those clashes.

Professor Martín Íñiguez of the department of Latin American studies at Iberoamericana University in Mexico, said that the government's "iron fist" approach will almost certainly fuel more violence over coming months.

"If the government had any sense at all it would be supporting civilian organizations that are seeking to bring peace," he said. "That doesn't mean that there will not be violence, but violence that is controlled, to some degree, is a very different thing."

Related: El Salvador Is Creating a Special Military Unit to Hunt Gang Members

This week's developments make it look less likely than ever that the government is about to invest in violence prevention programs. It now seems completely out of the question that it would promote the idea of bringing down the violence by working with gang members on the ground.

In an editorial on Thursday, the leading and generally pro-government national daily Prensa Gráfica dismissed the 2012 truce as a means of providing gang leaders with more "room to manoeuvre." The drop in the murder rate, the paper argued, was a brief and superficial sideshow designed to provide image benefits for the then government that left office in 2014.

The editorial went on to suggest that the "most important" implication of the newest wave of arrests and the accompanying investigation is the message that there will be no more deals with the gangs.

"This is, without doubt, the first step on the ladder of the investigations," the paper wrote. "Such pernicious acts as the search for understanding with those who go against the law will no longer be able to be promoted as legitimate initiatives under any pretext."

Watch the VICE News documentary: Gangs of El Salvador (Full Length)

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten