Assessing the Salvadoran Gang Truce

Yesterday (August 28, 2012), the New York Times finally picked up the story of a “truce” that was struck between opposing factions of the Salvadoran contingents of the transnational gangs MS-13 and M-18. The truce involved an agreement to stop the tit-for-tat payback killings that have contributed enormously to El Salvador’s skyrocketing homicide rate during the past decade. I say “finally picked up the story” because the truce was struck more than five months ago and the homicide rates have been down between 30% and 50% ever since. Thus, I have been somewhat surprised that prior to this month, only mid-level media in the U.S. had picked up on the story.
A journalist friend asked me for my thoughts on the article and I wrote the following paragraphs.
On the whole, I think the NYT article is pretty fair. A minor critique is that I think the author overstates the power, reach, and organization of the gangs by referring to the MS-13 and M-18 as “virtual armies” with “between 30,000 and 50,000 members.” Those numbers might not be too far off if one is counting all of the Central American youth who affiliate with cells that identify with the MS-13 and M-18 (most cells do) but it is highly unlikely that there are this many jumped-in gang members in El Salvador alone. And I have seen no convincing evidence (and neither did the FBI when it set up offices in L.A. and San Salvador to track the MS-13) that a command structure exists such that 30,000 to 50,000 gang members could be effectively mobilized across the region. In  fairness, I have more expertise in Honduras and Guatemala, and in those countries, there doesn’t seem to be even a national, much less international, authority structure. El Salvador may be the exception in this sense. It appears that the gangs there are somewhat more organized, and that clearly has something to do with their ability to lower the homicide rate so dramatically via an agreement between a handful of leaders. Still, to call them “virtual armies” with tens of thousands of “soldiers” is a stretch.
As for the truce, I think it is a hopeful thing, worth working to maintain–and I’ll admit that it took me completely by surprise. I would not have predicted something like this and I had to do a fair amount of reading the papers before I felt comfortable admitting (to my Salvadoran friends) that I think it should be supported. (Here are some good articles in Spanish and English.) The Salvadoran public, including some intellectuals, are skeptical, I think, because they have so little faith in the capacity of government or gang members to tell the truth about what’s really going on behind closed doors. And they wonder why the truce should only affect gang killings and not, say, extortion or kidnapping. But I agree with Raul Mijangos–the former guerrilla commander turned propane dealer who, along with a Catholic priest, helped arrange and broker the meetings between gang members–that the truce, limited though it may be, is an important step that can open some space for further steps and that can help establish some room for making headway on other issues. Of course it’s important to make Central American society a more hospitable place for barrio youth by improving education and job opportunities. No one would deny that. But that’s hard to do when the bullets are already flying. Mayors in places like Chicago and Camden know this. I’m a little surprised that the U.S. counterparts in the region don’t get it and appear to ignore the truce as irrelevant.
In short, everything I’ve read about Mijangos and his account of the gang negotiations makes sense to me intuitively. And furthermore, the “demands” that the gangs are asking of the state–things like asking that the government bar the military from placing its soldiers inside prisons, asking that the prisons release elderly prisoners (not necessarily gang members) to reduce overcrowding, and that police torture of suspects be abolished–are perfectly reasonable within a democratic state. On most issues, the gangs are simply calling the state to respect the human rights of its own citizens. And that’s why OAS Secretary Insulza so emphatically lauded their efforts.
Of course, I also worry about the ability of the gang leaders to keep their rank and file in line. We shouldn’t be surprised if at some point there are “defections” of mid-level leaders outside the prison who see an opportunity to make their move, break away, and gain territory. Perhaps that’s happening already. But it’s important symbolically that the leadership is voicing its own “cansancio” (exhaustion) with the killing. They know the game can’t go on forever. So the government can and should extend them some dignity for having taken this important step. The alternative–simply trying to intimidate (and incarcerate) them into submission with one mano dura plan after another–has shown itself to be a miserable failure of a policy. It simply incites resistance, hardening the resolve of the current gang members and radicalizing more barrio youth whose address, clothing, and skin tone render them “guilty by association.” Here’s hoping the Salvadoran people will support the process.