A truce between the main gangs of El Salvador, brokered over two years ago and supported by the Organization of American States (OAS), is now facing serious challenges as the murder rate increases in one of the world’s most violent countries.
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs, which originated in Los Angeles in 1980 — and have steadily spread throughout El Salvador, assimilating smaller gangs in the process — have been on the FBI watch lists as some of the most dangerous trans-national criminal organizations in the world.
In one of the towns controlled by an MS-13 sect, the population addressed the increased tension caused by a permanent territorial dispute with its neighboring gang, Barrio 18, which controls the surrounding area. The neighborhood tension has reached a boiling point because of the way Barrio 18 has tried to take over a strategic hillside, which is controlled by the MS.
“The hood is hot, man. They say that the numbered punks [MS-13] tried to move up,” Gustavo, a local resident, explained to VICE News.
In downtown San Salvador, gangs have reportedly implemented a curfew — which leaders deny — but many merchants comply with strictly. Some choose to close up shop at around 6PM, especially since the murder of a local civilian vigilante.
But is not just violence that worries the merchants and inhabitants of those neighborhoods. In gang–controlled areas, curfews are not to be taken lightly.
One of the main ways that gangs extort funds is by charging a toll; it is one of their primary sources of income — that, and drug dealing. Local residents also claim that gang members are now also working with employees of local private security firms, who are assisting them in criminal activities.
“The problem is that the security company has had a shady agreement with the MS-13 ever since they murdered one of the principal operators in charge of controlling rent at the market,” Alex, an employee of the security agency that works in the area — who chose not to disclose his last name for fear of repercussion — told VICE News.
A Surprising Gang Press Conference
On the night of April 29, the gangs gathered five journalists at a secret press conference to reinforce the importance of the truce as a pivotal tool to reduce violence. In keeping with the old urban guerilla customs, the gangs asked the journalists to read a manifesto, with the promise that they would not reveal their identities and location. VICE News was not in attendance at the conference, but received information from one of the journalists present.
“We want to send a message to the members of the police corporation: You, just like us, belong to this country’s impoverished families. You serve to protect — we live in the same barrios and communities and, in most cases, we are united by family ties; this is why we don’t consider you our enemies,” the manifesto read.
Mediators of the truce and the gangs' leaders insist that the January 2012 arrival of Ricardo Perdomo as Minister of Public Security blocked the advancement of the pact.
"With all of this — the blocking of the truce, social repression — a high tension situation has been created between police and gang members. This has led to a very delicate situation, which is now causing an erroneous competition for who shoots first,” the statement said.
The increase in ambushes against police has raised alarms among public service authorities, and Perdomo denounced a faction of the Barrio 18 known as the Revolucionarios for violating the truce.
During the news conference, representatives for MS-13, Barrio 18/South and Barrio 18/Revolucionarios, promised that none of their members would break the truce.
In the press statement the three gang’s representatives implored the government to support the agreement with the Maras.
“We are facing a difficult moment as a nation — which is common in times of transition, but not all change is for the worst. We embrace the arrival of a new government as an opportunity to fill the country with hope.” the statement said.
The country’s president–elect, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), will assume office on June 1. Sánchez Cerén, a teacher turned guerilla leader in the 1970s, won the presidential elections in March. He has yet to speak about the pact.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), El Salvador has the second highest homicide index in the world. Before the truce began, the National Civil Police (PNC) reported the homicide rate had reached 4,360 deaths for the year 2011, bringing the daily average to 11.9 daily murders for a population of just over 6 million.
Since the pact was implemented on March 9, 2012, deaths have been reduced. In 2012, the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML) reported that homicides had decreased by 39 percent compared to 2011, at an average of 7.2 murders per day, nationwide. In 2013 the murder rate was again slightly reduced, closing the year with 6.8 daily murders.
However, as of 2014 these numbers are again on the rise, with a reported 89 murders in just the first ten days of 2014, bringing the murder rate almost back to 2011 levels.
The Minister of Public Security confirmed that some sects of the gangs expand the organization and territorial control, and receive combat training with arms meant for military use.
It is hard to define whether the truce is actually going to be respected. As usual in El Salvador, the most reasonable thing to do is hope the peace lasts as long as possible. In anticipation of a new declaration by the gang leaders, the reality overwhelms any well-meaning statement. Three soccer players died over the weekend after their bus was attacked by gang members with machine guns.
Alex, the guard we spoke to, has a simple analysis of the situation he is observing.
“This is serious,” he said. “The president hasn’t even assumed power yet. They aren’t even going to let him sit down.”