Michael Busch

Two years ago, prospects for peace between El Salvador’s gangs seemed good. In May 2012, MS-13 and MS-18 agreed to a peace pact brokered by religious leaders and the government. It represented something of a watershed moment in the country’s politics. To that point, the frighteningly powerful gangs violently contested for monopoly control of various illicit activities, from drugs and human trafficking, to local extortion of businesses and government representatives. The truce represented the first step in curbing the most violent excesses of this competition, and offered some hope that relative peace would allow El Salvador to capitalize on what’s been an otherwise encouraging record (though not without its flaws) of socioeconomic progress since the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) took power in 2009.

Today it looks like the truce might be dead. While murder rates have been steadily climbing in recent months, the first major sign that the pact was in trouble came this past December. A mass grave containing dozens of dismembered bodies was discovered in La Libertad Department, allegedly the work of MS-18.  The discovery affirmed the belief of some that the agreed upon peace was mere window dressing to conceal business-as-usual between the gangs.  Critics of the pact, reported NBC, “noted that while murders were supposedly declining, disappearances were rising, to more than 1,000 last year. Crimes and killings, [they contend] continued clandestinely all along.”  More recent indicators are equally discouraging. 

In the first three months of 2014 alone, over five hundred murders were committed throughout the country. And while this total exceeds that of the same period in 2013 by just a hundred deaths, it’s believed a significant number of these murders resulted from revenge killings by the gangs.  Rigoberto Pleités, El Salvador’s chief of police, estimated that inter-gang violence accounts for more than 70 percent of total murder in 2014, a situation that lead Justice Minister Ricardo Perdomo to conclude this week that the truce “technically no longer exists.” 

What happened?

One possible culprit for the breakdown is the size and evolving structure of the gangs themselves. As the gangs continue to grow, operational control over their activity increasingly devolves to locally-based units. Several years back, when the pact was first established, I registered worries “that even if the higher ups in MS-13 and MS-18, many of whom are directing traffic from prison, genuinely endorse the peace plan, they may not be able to effectively enforce it.” This may be, but it is doubtful. 

Political failure is the more likely explanation. On March 8, El Salvador will hold a national run-off election between Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the ruling FMLN party and Norman Quijano, the conservative ARENA party’s candidate, for the presidency. While Sánchez Cerén will almost certainly crush Quijano in Sunday’s election (ARENA’s campaigning has been farcically hysterical in tone), the FMLN’s victory won’t have been won without serious damage to the truce, which has been a significant point of weakness for the party. 

Despite promises that the pact would reduce levels of violence across the country, skeptics have argued from the start that the agreement would allow the gangs to consolidate and extend their control of illicit and licit market activities behind the veneer of détente. Conservative elites have been especially pointed in their attacks, accusing El Salvador’s left-of-center government of collusion with gang leaders and corruption of the country’s political process.  These assaults have achieved their purpose—forcing government representatives to back away from their initial support of the peace pact. 

While the country’s president, Mauricio Funes, has publicly avoided the issue, his government has sent clear signals that its previous embrace of the pact no longer exists. The Economist noted last month that Perdomo “has taken a tough line,” and that government support for different initiatives associated with the truce has all but dried up. “An agreement under which eleven municipalities agreed with the gangs to provide ‘peace zones’ and job opportunities in exchange for a halt to the violence has been undermined.” Since November mayors from both the FMLN and Arena have complained that federal cash to support the programs has not materialized.”

Whether abandonment of the truce will continue to be government policy following Sánchez’s victory remains to be seen, though it seems the most probable option facing the next president. The possibility for a reset seems remote at this point—the truce has become too politically unpalatable for the public—though not beyond the realm of possibility. Conversely, an explicit return to the mano dura policies of the previous ARENA administration would be politically out of the question, not to mention ethically unacceptable. Allowing the truce to wither and die, then, will be a tempting decision to take. What results from there is anyone’s guess. 

Image via Imgur

Michael Busch is a Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.