After several months of negotiations,the Mara Salvatruchas and the Barrio 18, two powerful gangs withthousands of membersin El Salvador, have agreed to a truce in their gang war.According to government statistics, whose reliability has been questioned by experts,the agreement has led to a precipitous drop of violence in the Central American nation, such as murders and kidnappings. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing concern that this fragile peace could be shattered at any time, as well as questions regarding its wider geopolitical ramifications.
The violence and the debatable peace
El Salvador is a nation that has suffered cycles of violence dating back to the civil war between the government and theFrente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional(FMLN) guerrillas. The war, which claimed around70,000 lives, ravaged the country throughout the 1980s until the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords. Today, instead of battling insurgents attempting regime change, San Salvador has to battle yet another internal armed foe, but with different objectives andmodus operandi.
In this March 26, 2012 photo, an inmate belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang stands inside the prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)
Gangs like the Maras originated not in Central America but rather in the United States.When Washington carried out waves of deportations in the 1980s and 1990s of undocumented individuals to their home countries, many of whom were criminals, the governments and prison systems promptly found themselves overwhelmed with hardened criminals who quickly developed a structure and a following, recruiting new members from among the nation’s impoverished youths.Gang expertsidentify domestic violence, poverty, and a desire for revenge and for belonging as some of the main reasons why individuals join gangs.
In recent years, the Maras and Barrio 18 reached alarming levels of influence. For example, in September 2010,the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs successfully carried out a72-hour shut down of the country’s public transportation systemto protest an anti-gang law.In addition, the war between the two has claimed an increasing number of non-gang victims.On June 20, 2010, 16 people were killed when gangs attacked two passenger buses by shooting at them and subsequently setting them on fire. This is just one of many documented horrific incidents resulting from increased violence among these groups.
As the violence became increasingly out of hand, a much needed intervention was initiated. Military bishop Monsignor Fabio Colindres and the Catholic Church launched a series of negotiations between the gangs which concluded in a peace agreement. Nevertheless, there are concerns as to whether it has been effective and whether it will last. In July, a grave by a hill in the municipality ofSanta Teclawas found containing thebodies of five teenagers,who were apparently shot by Mara members after they refused to join them. As a way to justify their behavior, gang leaders have argued that it is impossible for them to assure that all members of their gangs will fully comply with the truce, essentially stating that there is the possibility of future violence, which isn’t sanctioned by the gang’s leadership. The gangs in El Salvador reportedly have over 50,000 members.
In this Sept. 1, 2012 photo, an inmate belonging to the Mara 18 gang gestures inside the prison in Cojutepeque, El Salvador. Six months after El Salvador brokered an historic truce between two rival gangs to curb the nation’s daunting homicide rate, officials are split over whether the truce actually works. The gangs, which also operate in Guatemala and Honduras, are seeking truce talks in those countries as well. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)
There are also conflicting statements about whether gang-related violence has truly decreased since the agreement. According to theSecurity and Justice Ministry, murders in the first eight months of 2012 are already down to 1,894 which means that there has been a 30 percent decrease. However, the agency also calculated that there were 335 disappearances in the first half of the year, while a legal medicine institute in the country indicated the number to be 1,279. It’s unclear why there is such a large discrepancy in the two sets of numbers.
Moreover, the country’s population is concerned that the level of compromise between the government and the Maras, which included the transfer of gang leaders to a less restrictive prison, will lead to new demands by the gangs to maintain the cease-fire.
The geopolitics of peace
The arguable success of the peace agreement between the Maras and Barrio 18 in El Salvador has garnered the interest of other regional states in order to see if similar agreements can be reached with their own domestic Mara gangs. The potential for similar peace negotiations among the Mara factions and governments in other Central American states (like Honduras and Guatemala) raises a critical issue: the leadership structure of this international gang. It is generally believed that each national faction operates independently, but it is unclear to what extent there is some kind of supranational leadership structure that oversees each national faction. A couple of important questions regarding this development would be: To what extent did the Maras of El Salvador consult with the factions of Honduras and Nicaragua before the peace negotiations began? And what does this agreement say of how this particular gang is internationally structured?
Furthermore,over the past few months, there has been a plethora of news reports regarding the expanding influence of the Zetas, a major Mexican drug cartel.Concerns over possible alliances with the Maras in countries likeGuatemalahave become an increasing threat. Nevertheless, analysts have called into question the strength of these inter-organization criminal alliances, as they usually are for“a defined purpose and for a defined time.”It is unclear whether the Zetas have a foothold in El Salvador;the local policehave declared that they are investigating reports of the Zetas recruiting local gang members. Therefore, it is debatable how the gang peace processes in El Salvador, and others around the region, will affect the potential relations between the different Mara factions and the expansion of the Zetas. Currently, there are too many variables to carry out an accurate analysis, including the question of whether the gang peace in El Salvador will last.
El Salvador could learn fromColombia
In this Sept. 1, 2012 photo, an inmate belonging to the Mara 18 gang embraces his girlfriend during visitation time for families of inmates inside the prison in Cojutepeque, El Salvador. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)
After the truce, thesecurity news-website InsightCrimepublished an analysis in which it discussed what lessons the government ofEl Salvador could learn from the peace and demobilization processes in Colombia, particularly with the now-defunct AUC paramilitary group. However, this comparison is limited by the differences between theraisons d’etre, structure, andmodus operandiof the AUC and the Central American gangs. While the AUC is an arguably successful case-study (in the loosest sense of the word given that several ex-AUC joined criminal gangs known as BACRIM), there is also a counter-case study, namely the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. In 1999 the Colombian government agreed to a peace agreement with the FARC, in which they obtained control of a sizeable territory. Unfortunately, the FARC utilized the cease of hostilities and territory to regroup and to again launch major attacks against the government and security forces.
While everyone certainly wishes that the peace agreement between the Maras and Barrio 18 continues,the government in San Salvador needs to be prepared for the possibility of renewed hostilities. Considering that the membership of El Salvador’s gangs number in the thousands,it is unrealistic to assume that all members will fully comply to the peace agreement reached by the gang’s leadership. History has shown that there will most likely be smaller factions that will continue with their criminal activities.
An upheld truce between the gangs and subsequent reduction in violence would constitute a huge victory for President Mauricio Funes. While the Funes administration had little to do with jumpstarting the peace talks, the government can be credited for supporting them. At the very least, this will deviate the public’s attention from the legal crisis regarding the country’sConstitutional Chamber. Finally, as aforementioned, there is the concern regarding the growing influence of the Zetas in Central America.The peace among local gangs provides San Salvador precious time to carry out security initiatives such as improving theequipmentand training of security forces, as well as social projects, like the successful reintegration of gang members and preventing further recruitment.