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El Salvador's Gangs Offered a Truce — And the Government Declared War

The government has declared a state of emergency in seven prisons and is expected to mobilize the army to fight the gangs in some areas.

by Alan Hernández and Keegan Hamilton
Mar 31 2016, 2:00pm

Photo by David de la Paz/EPA

It's been a bloody year for El Salvador. An ongoing war between two powerful street gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 — has given the tiny Central American nation the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, and there's fear that a series of recent developments could make matters even worse, at least in the immediate future.

Late last week, the rival gangs, known as pandillas, offered to halt the killings in exchange for concessions from the government, but authorities have instead decided to take the fight against the gangs to their home base: the country's notoriously corrupt and overcrowded prisons. Gang leaders operate from behind bars, using smuggled cellphones to oversee street-level drug dealing and extortion, and to order kidnappings and murders.

On Tuesday, the government declared a state of emergency in seven prisons, promising deep searches for weapons, money, and cellphones. They also moved 299 high-ranking MS-13 members into a maximum security prison near San Salvador, the country's capital.

"They are going to be subjected to a higher security regimen, with greater control to make sure communication from inside the prison system is stopped," Justice Minister Mauricio Ramírez told reporters.

Authorities also announced new anti-gang legislation that could mobilize the army to fight gangs in some municipalities. The country's Supreme Court previously ruled that gangs could be classified as terrorist organizations, and lawmakers are expected to approve the new measures on Thursday.

Related: El Salvador's Already Horrific Murder Rate Is Getting Much Worse

At least 6,657 people were murdered in El Salvador last year, including 63 police officers. It was the deadliest year in the country since 1983, when leftist guerrilla groups were locked in a civil war with a US-backed military dictatorship. The killings have continued apace in 2016, with an average of 23 murders per day. The situation has led to an exodus of women and children fleeing north to the United States.

Last week, three alleged top leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 posted a video on YouTube ordering all their forces to stop the killings throughout the country for three days. Authorities have acknowledged that murders declined significantly during this period.

"We want to show the people, the current government, and the international representations that there is no need to propose measures that just come to violate our constitution and all the laws coming from it," said one of the purported leaders, who kept his face covered with a cloth.

They also asked for improved conditions and fewer restrictions in the prisons where the top leaders of both organizations reside.

The gangs previously agreed to a truce in 2012, and murders fell by 40 percent nationwide in nine months. Extortion and other crimes reportedly continued, however, and the discovery of mass graves suggested that the killings may have simply continued clandestinely.

The agreement fell apart completely in 2014 when President Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, and the gangs began feuding once again and assassinating police officers. More than 800 officers from the country's National Civil Police have quit their jobs over the last three years, with many reporting that their families had been threatened.

Critics of the truce — including many of the country's political elite and the families who have lost loved ones to gang violence — argue that negotiating with the gangs only serves to legitimize them and increase their power.

Taking a tough-on-crime approach, the Sánchez administration has raised the stakes to the point of authorizing police to use lethal force "whenever necessary."

"All members of the PNC (National Civil Police) that have to use weapons against criminals due to their work as officers, should do so with complete confidence," Police Director Mauricio Ramírez said last year during a press conference. "There is an institution that backs us. There is a government that supports us."

Related: El Salvador's Young People Are Killing, Dying, and Running

Raul Mijango, an ex-guerrilla leader who was the main mediator of the 2012 truce, said the measures announced by the government this week have been tried before and only led to more bloodshed.

"It's an irregular war that's difficult to combat with conventional methods," Mijango said. "For the powers that be to stop this, they must use more civilized methods: Dialogue," Mijango said. "It marginalized this country's youth even more, making them vulnerable to the influence of the gangs. It only made the maras stronger."

Mijango believes the government's reluctance to try a peace strategy has more to do with politics than with the gangs.

"This dialogue (in 2012) reached an agreement that opened one of the most successful processes towards reducing violence that has been seen in Latin America," he said. "We lowered the daily homicide rate from 15 to five homicides, 15 months consecutively. The gangs didn't fail, the government was the one who failed for their own political interests."

According to Mijango, many Salvadoran politicians who supported the truce when it first started used the gangs to gain votes to get elected, then changed their positions once in office. Two leaders of the conservative opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance are currently under investigation for their involvement with the previous gang truce.

For their part, the gangs have made it clear that if the truce is not accepted, the politicians should be afraid. The masked men in the video warned what would happen after the emergency measures at the prisons are implemented.

"We're making the government in general aware that it cannot finish off the gangs because we're part of the community of our country," they said. "So we're letting them know that we have the means to destroy the politics of this country."

Follow Alan Hernández and Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @alanpasten and @keegan_hamilton

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