Gangs’ Truce Buys El Salvador a Tenuous Peace
LATIN AMERICA & THE CARIBBEAN, 3 September 2012
by Randal C. Archibold – The New York Times
They had faced off many times before, on the streets, with guns in their hands. But when top leaders of two of the hemisphere’s most violent street gangs sat across from one another in the stifling air of a maximum security prison here this year, the encounter had a very different aim: peace.
With a military chaplain and a former lawmaker officiating, the imprisoned gang leaders held a moment of silence for the thousands of people their street armies had killed. After a few more meetings — and the government’s concession to transfer 30 of the leaders to less-restrictive conditions — they shook hands on a pact to put an end to the killings.
“We said we have to talk because things are getting out of hand,” said Carlos Tiberio Valladares, a leader serving time for murder who has tattoos of his gang etched across his face. “No one is going to tell you they want their kids to continue on this path.”
Five months later, the truce endures in El Salvador, long one of the most violent countries in the Americas. With 30,000 to 50,000 members and weaponry that includes assault-style rifles and grenades, the two gangs are virtual armies that have the power to affect the security of the entire region — and they have used it to terrorize populations still weary from years of civil war and instability.
Now the truce is moving this country in the opposite direction, the authorities contend, leading to a precipitous drop in violence. But others question whether the government should have essentially made what some consider a pact with the devil for the public good.
“This is a historic moment in El Salvador,” said Alex Sanchez, a former Salvadoran gang member who directs Homies Unidos, an antiviolence program in Los Angeles. “If we lose this moment, we lose the moment of a lifetime.”
Homicides in this country of six million people are down 32 percent in the first half of this year; kidnappings have fallen 50 percent; and extortion has declined nearly 10 percent, according to the Salvadoran security ministry, which attributes the drop largely to the truce.
The peace talks involved the region’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which trace their roots to Los Angeles. Their ranks mushroomed in the United States after young men fled Central America’s civil strife in the 1980s. When many were later deported for crimes in the United States, the gangs formed large affiliates in El Salvador and neighboring countries.
In a string of attacks two years ago that killed more than 16 people, gang members held up passengers on city buses and burned one bus while it was filled with riders. One of the gang leaders brokering the truce was part of a gang that kidnapped and killed the young son of a businessman. Some gang members have served as foot soldiers for drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico.
At the first truce meeting, hot stares fed the tension, according to those present. About 200 soldiers stood nearby in case the sit-down dissolved into bloodshed and ignited the thousands of gang members that the leaders command from behind prison walls.
These prisoners, some branded head to toe with gang tattoos, now speak of a new day. They raise the prospect of working instead of stealing to make ends meet. They liken the truce, however fragile, to the peace accords that halted the 12-year civil war here in 1992.
“We have shown good will,” said Victor Antonio García, a Barrio 18 leader deported from Los Angeles. “But now the government has to get involved. We need, like, an affirmative action law here for gang members who quit and need jobs.”
The truce has made for some head-spinning moments.
Gang leaders sat down last month with José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who, as if at a summit meeting of regional leaders, called the truce a promising turn in stemming the tide of violence in Central America. Later, six masked men symbolically laid down high-powered weapons at his feet.
“If the presence of the O.A.S. secretary general helps in this peace proposal, I will be here,” Mr. Insulza said.
Many remain skeptical that the truce will stick, noting the lack of alternatives for young men in poor neighborhoods. After a sizable drop, the number of homicides rose again early this month, and reports of extortion and disappearances remain high, leading the chief medical examiner to warn that the pact “may be in danger of fracturing.”
The truce did not halt all members’ ruthless ways. Some who have violated the truce have been killed themselves, according to gang leaders and a social worker involved in the talks. Gang leaders say they cannot control all their members.
That some violence continues was evident this month at the morgue, where Wendy Maritza Rodríguez wailed “Oh, my love! My love!” as workers removed a white sheet from the corpse of her nephew, who was a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. He was killed, she surmised, for trying to quit.
“If you try to do something else with your life, they kill you,” she said, wiping away tears.
The government at first denied any involvement with the truce, and then announced it was accommodating a peace effort pushed by Roman Catholic Church leaders, social workers and gang members. The prison agency acknowledged it had agreed to move the gang leaders out of maximum security, provide televisions and make other concessions, like increased visiting rights, to encourage the truce.
“What I don’t see as viable is basing a state policy on a nonaggression agreement between criminal bands,” the columnist Luis Laínez wrote in La Prensa Gráfica, a leading newspaper.
Officials in neighboring Honduras, themselves wrestling with out-of-control violence, call the truce worthy of study. But American officials have kept their distance.
“We think that, yes, it has reduced crime, but long-range, sustainably, we feel that we have to address the root causes in order to be effective and for any reduction to be sustainable,” said Mari Carmen Aponte, the American ambassador.
She said the embassy had recently stepped up efforts to improve after-school programs and community policing. Government officials in Guatemala, where gang leaders are said to be considering a truce, have dismissed the idea of participating in any way.
Raúl Mijango, a former lawmaker who is a chief mediator in the Salvadoran effort, said the security minister, David Munguía Payés, whom he befriended after the civil war, broached the idea of getting the gangs talking last fall, without specifically mentioning a truce or offering government help.
Mr. Mijango said he later enlisted Msgr. Fabio Colindres, the military chaplain, and began serious discussions with the gangs in January that ultimately led to the idea of a truce.
Mr. Munguía, the security minister, said he doubted he would personally sit down with the gang leaders, citing the government’s official position that it would not negotiate with criminals. But he also spoke of the truce as part of a “new strategy” toward stemming violence.
“Many thought it would last a month, and now it’s been five months,” he said.
Behind bars, the hopeful talk of peace is tempered with a growing impatience.
“This peace process is hard to maintain,” said Mr. García, the Barrio 18 leader.
Ludwig Rivera, 28, a Barrio 18 leader with tattoos nearly covering his face, said: “It’s not that the truce is weak. We feel it is strong. But the lack of involvement of the authorities and the public could make it weak. They all think we are animals, but we have rights and we are taking a step, so they should take a step” by investing in rehabilitation programs.
The rival gangs are still kept in separate prisons, lest they go after each other. “We are not there yet,” Mr. Rivera said of the idea of sharing a cell with a Mara Salvatrucha member. “The feelings are still too strong.”
Gene Palumbo contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 28, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Gangs’ Truce Buys El Salvador a Tenuous Peace.
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