El Salvador’s Return to a Peacetime War

By Rohan Chatterjee

This March the National Civil Police (PNC) recorded 481 homicides as El Salvador continued its steady regression to levels of violence once hoped confined to the country’s ultraviolent past. March concluded as the deadliest month in over a decade, recording an average of 16 murders a day, including six separate massacres, as the Central American nation grapples with escalating gang violence.

So far this year there have been more than 1,800 homicides in a country of just over 6 million, roughly the size of Massachusetts. The murder rate, which had grown steadily since the middle of 2013 following the collapse of a controversial gang-truce, has exploded in recent months equalling pre-2011 levels which, at the time, was the world’s highest at 66 murders per 100,000.

The current spike in violence, which Insight Crime believes to be “taking on overtones of a low-intensity war”, shows little sign of abating with 411 homicides in the first three weeks of May, a daily average of 21 murders. This is the second time in five months the homicide total has surpassed 400 in a 30-day period, according to the Salvadorian Institute of Legal Medicine (IML).

El Salvador now looks destined to dethrone neighbouring Honduras as the world’s most deadly peacetime country.

Crime, especially violent crime, in the country is dominated by gangs –known as ‘Maras’– of which Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18 Street) are the two predominant groups (believed to comprise around 87 per cent of the country’s gang membership). Today there are an estimated 30,000-60,000 (according to varying estimates) active gang members in or out of prison.

The root of ‘the gang problem’ can be traced to the costal nation’s violent, and tragic, past.

The gangs were formed, in part, in US cities like Los Angeles by Central Americans fleeing their conflict-torn countries for the relative safety of their northern neighbour in the middle of the 20th Century.

In El Salvador a decade-long civil war between a US-backed conservative government and leftwing guerrillas left more than 75,000 casualties and one million more displaced people. Hardened gang members -after cutting their teeth in the US- were transplanted back into a post-civil war El Salvador following a spate of deportations in the early 1990’s. From here they integrated and came into conflict with an already burgeoning native gang population. These ties developed well into the early 2000’s before reaching anything like the levels of activity for which they are now infamous.

Elected last year, President Salvador Sanchez Cerén, an ex-leftwing guerrilla commander from the civil war days, took office as a highly controversial gang truce, which saw a period of relative respite, at least with the homicide rate, had already begun to unravel. Since then he has been beset with a rising homicide rate, spiking in the first quarter of 2015.

The gang truce which almost halved murder rates was brokered in February-March 2012 by Cerén’s predecessor, Mauricio Fuenes, and included the government, MS-13 and Callle 18. Other parties incorporated as talks progressed included the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Catholic Church as well as La Mirada Locos, Mao-Mao and other smaller gangs. Despite such high profile involvement the peace failed to garner longstanding public support.

Unofficially, the peace only held for about a year but its collapse was not publically acknowledged until January this year when Cerén ceremoniously shut the door on any chance of “negotiating with the gangs because this is at the margin of the law”.

The reasons behind its collapse have been subject to some scrutiny and a lot of speculation. Many Salvadorians and experts argue the gangs used the shaky truce to expand their operations, with violence being increasingly targeted towards civilians. According to IML director, Miguel Fortin, “The murder rate fell but not the rate of violence”.

However, Raul Mijango, a chief negotiator involved in the truce, points the finger at the transfer of incarcerated gang leaders back into high-security jails. He believes one of the roadblocks to success developed once it became common knowledge that gang leaders had been returned to low-security facilities as part of the truce, causing widespread outrage among the public. Mijango is quoted as saying; “The only thing that has worked is direct dialogue with the gangs… This [the violence] can be stopped in a matter of days… the path to peace must have inclusive dialogue.”
With increasing public demand for action, so far this year there have been around 4,500 arrests and hundreds of gang members killed by government forces. A further three battalions have been added to the offensive, whose sole remit will be to tackle the gangs. Cerén has gone on record as saying; “(recent) gang activity is a consequence of increased (police) operability… in March, over 140 were gang members were killed in clashes with the police”.

Such a response has unavoidably spilled over into gangs targeting security personnel. So far in 2015, gangs have been blamed for the murders of 20 plus police officers, two soldiers, six prison guards and one prosecutor.

However, some critics fear that since the truce’s collapse, and with an increasingly retaliatory cycle of violence, the security forces seem to be returning to potentially dangerous zero tolerance, mano dura (iron fist), tactics. Ceren himself believes the police are responsible for around 30 per cent of the countries murders. Jeanne Rikkers from the human rights organisation Fespad believes such “policies have not reduced crime nor improved public safety”. Somewhat controversially, adding to a culture of violence on the part of the security forces, the director of the National Police told rank and file officers in January they had permission to shoot criminals with “complete confidence”.

With demand for results and advisors like the former New York Mayor famous for his advocacy of zero-tolerance towards crime, Rudi Guliani, influencing government policy the danger is that, as Mike Allison, associate professor of political science and author of Central American Politics Blog, said to the Guardian: “In a country with a history of extrajudicial executions by security personnel, it appears the police (and other institutions) have responded in a way that was entirely expected – greater use of force against suspected gang members”.

Cerén’s long-term approach to stopping violence looks to focus on a cure as well as just prevention tactics. His administration has introduced ‘Plan Safe El Salvador’ which focuses on social programmes, prison reform and key crime prevention actions. He has also gone on record promising a legal “resolve to defeat violence” but importantly, at the same time, reaching out “to those who decide to stop killing and threatening peace”. He went on to pledge support in rehabilitating ex-gang members wanting to put violence behind them and re-join society.

El Salvador’s current climate however appears to be worsening with no clear solution; the culture of violence is seemingly becoming more entrenched than ever. There is no immediately clear strategy to alleviate the cycle of violence and only time will tell if the Cerén administration’s Iron-fist-and-open-palm approach will work. However, for the average Salvadorian today, gang violence for all intents and purposes is plunging El Salvador back to levels of misery reminiscent of the Civil War years.

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