A Warscapes reader from El Salvador wrote to me last night, requesting clarification on something I wrote in my post on El Salvador’s gangs and ISIS. Specifically, he queried a passage that I realize now was very poorly phrased. I had written, “How the responsibilities of the government to its people can be meaningfully balanced against the preferences of gangs, who wield real power across El Salvador, is a puzzle that has so far eluded a solution.”
It strikes me that the passage is not only badly written but coy, as well. What I intended to suggest, without explicitly arguing the point, is that I’ve come to think that another round of peace negotiations between the gangs and the government is the country’s best hope. It’s a position I’ve taken up in another piece I hope will be published soon, but as I discussed with the reader in a private email exchange, the short and long of it is this.
The gangs exercise power throughout the country, and they're not going away any time soon. They maras have outlined a series of demands that are politically unappetizing but, from what I can tell, are no worse than the price of continued bloodshed at increasingly grotesque levels. Too, these demands have been put forth as distinctly negotiable items, not hardline, take-it-or-leave-it deal breakers. Initiating dialogue with the gangs on these issues—as well as any others that the government puts forward—seems to me a much better approach than ratcheting up the violence through a militarized response.
The idea of another truce is not popular, politically or otherwise. A piece in InsightCrime this morning warns that the likelihood of peace through negotiations is doubtful. The author, Michael Lohmuller, points out that,
…it is unclear to what extent the MS13 and Barrio 18 leadership can control its members and deliver immediate benefits such as a reduction of violence. The gang leaders have been transferred back to a maximum-security prison facility, ostensibly limiting their ability to coordinate and exert control over the day-to-day activities of members on the street. Furthermore, gang leaders reportedly agreed to halt violence in early 2015, yet El Salvador just experienced the two deadliest months the country has seen since its civil war.
Another gang truce also heightens the potential for increased violence in the long term, similar to how murder rates in El Salvador have been soaring since the breakdown of the first truce. A second gang truce thus raises the possibility of a cyclical effect, with periods of lowered homicide rates punctuated with periods of extreme violence.
From where I sit, Lohmuller’s first point about gang leadership is precisely why negotiations make sense. As I argued in my previous post, gang leaders probably have substantial interest in keeping control of their rapidly growing organizations. Peace talks would allow them to pursue this objective, which would be to great public benefit if it translated into dramatically reduced body counts. Whether that would happen immediately is anyone’s guess, and beside the point. If gang leaders failed to demonstrate command and control, their bargaining power would be greatly reduced to the government’s advantage.
As to Lohmuller’s second observation about igniting cycles of future violence: this tastes like thin soup. The threat of future conflict hangs over all peace negotiations—their very raison d’etre. The specter of future conflict should be the motivation for talks, not a deterrent. And while collapse of the first truce has resulted in extreme violence, a sample of one is just that. Whether another effort is doomed to failure and more violence can hardly be divined from the experiences of 2013-14.
All of this aside, prospects for peace appear remote. The government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén—like the old mano dura regimes of the ARENA era—appears to believe it can kill its way to peace, an approach I don’t think is true, or good. Figuring out ways that the government can engage productively with the gangs on some things—without sacrificing the security and well-being of its citizens—seems to me to be the biggest challenge El Salvador currently faces. Sadly, it’s one that the government so far has rejected even considering.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.