Early last March, it appeared that the truce between rival gangs in El Salvador had come undone. Murder rates had begun to rise and all signs suggested that the MS-13 and MS-18—the country’s leading organized crime groups—had abandoned peace for a return to bloody competition for control of any number of illicit markets.The final blow came at the end of the month when Salvador Sánchez Cerén took power, and distanced the government from negotiations with and between the gangs in favor of pursuing community policing initiatives at the grass roots. While some applauded the new president’s plan, others worried about the resurgence of war between the maras.
The consequences of the truce’s unraveling were presented this past week by the government in San Salvador. Reuters reports that the number of homicides in El Salvador increased an alarming 56 percent during the past year. “The National Civil Police reported 3,875 homicides in total as of December 30, compared with 2,490 [in 2013]. Just this month, police said, there was an average of 12 homicides daily.”
These numbers may only begin to scratch the surface of a much higher body count. As I noted at the time, many critics believed the truce was little more than a smokescreen concealing continued conflict between the gangs. The murder rate may have been dropping, they argued, but the number of disappearances was rising precipitously at the exact same time. Mass graves containing the victims of recent violence between the gangs, which first began to appear last January, continue to be uncovered today, suggesting the maras—far from ending hostilities between themselves—had adopted a hush-hush approach to warfare in order to preserve good public relations.
The past year also saw an increase in the number of violent confrontations between gang members and state security personnel. Government officials told Insight Crime in October that police had, to that point, engaged in over 130 armed battles with various gangs throughout the country. For its part, the army had clashed with the gangs fourteen times just that month. All totaled, dozens of state security personnel had been killed along with countless maras.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, any hope that the recently elected government possesses a coherent security strategy moving forward was dashed last month when the president’s newly created Council on Citizen Security announced it would be hiring the consulting services of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “We believe this is a good choice for the country,” beamed Jorge Daboub, president of the Association of Private Enterprise which will purportedly foot the bill. Giuliani is scheduled to arrive in El Salvador during the first weeks of January. If 2014 witnessed a broken truce, 2015 promises to give the country a taste of broken windows. So much for grass roots approaches to community policing.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.