El Salvador’s Criminal De-Mobilization Evokes De-Militarization of Civil War

Gang members surrender arms

The truce among rival gangs that reduced violence in El Salvador by 53 percent still holds firm.  Though, extortion and kidnapping are noticeably down in the capital of San Salvador, these gang related crimes shot up slightly in July.  With 30,000 to 50,000 gang members throughout the country it is difficult to enforce a complete de-mobilization.  By contrast, the country’s military and police forces are composed of about 15,000 active duty personnel each.

During peace talks, gang leaders evoked the agreement of Chapultepec that ended El Salvador’s civil war between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels and government forces in 1992. The war killed over 70,000. De-militarization proved to be the cornerstone of the agreement, separating Public Security from National Defense through the creation of a civilian police force distinct from the military.  By the end of the war, El Salvador had 63,000 soldiers.  An initial reduction plan sought to halve that force to 31,000 members.

But, the end of civil conflict did not stop violence in the country.  Criminal activity filled the vacuum after wartime hostilities ended.  The deportation of young Salvadoran refugees living in the US brought the gang culture present in major US cities to El Salvador.  Meanwhile, economic opportunity remained low and spending on security plummeted, as a result of peace accords.  By 1997, El Salvador was still the most dangerous country in the world, with 140 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.  At the beginning of the year, the country experiences about 65 murders per 100,000.

Though violence continues to grip the nation – once tied with neighboring Honduras, as the world’s most dangerous nation – March peace talks between the rival MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have brought a brief hiatus in a saga of death.  Sources in August estimate the murder rate is on track to fall to 34 homicides per 100,000, by the end of the year.

Peace talks were carried out between gang leaders in a maximum security prison and officiated by a military chaplain and a former lawmaker.  The Salvadoran government agreed to some concessions that granted the imprisoned bosses privileges such as family visits.  But despite the reduction in homicides, disappearances continue to plague the country.  In the first quarter of 2012, there were 692 disappearances – an 8 percent increase from the same period in 2011.

Ironically, the government overseeing the gang true is led by president Mauricio Funes, from the FMLN. The same rebel alliance that fought the government during the civil war of the 1980s has evolved into a modern political party operating in a democratic system.  The continued success or failure of the peace agreements will determine the fate of reconciliation and negotiation as a crime reduction strategy in the region.  Previous policies had taken a hardline, focusing on government led crackdowns and the expansion of law enforcement.  So far, none of El Salvador’s crime ridden neighbors in Guatemala and Honduras have endorsed the ceasefire.  Negotiating with criminal organizations still remains unpopular.

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Follow Up

Murdered schoolboys shake Salvador’s gang truce

Some wish the truce to fail

9 September, 2012

Marcos Aleman, AP

LAS COLINAS, El Salvador – [Five] schoolboys went missing on a Thursday, and it took nearly three weeks for police to discover the mass grave…The killings were the work of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of two notorious Salvadoran gangs that regularly visited schoolyards to recruit kids – using the usual method: a big meal with cake and soft drinks.

Carlos Ponce, an expert on crime for the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, says the truce is a sham.

“It’s all a lie, the gangs continue to operate, people continue getting killed, people keep disappearing and the gangs get stronger and stronger,” he said.



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