Marching for Gang Talk

Soldiers Gang

March 2016 marked the four-year anniversary of a watershed approach to Central American gang violence: a government-backed truce. The Salvadoran government had the (mis)fortune of being its pioneers.

Four years later, the general consensus is that the truce’s negatives vastly outweighed its positives. It failed.

Many argue that in spite of lowering the murder rate in the truce’s *peak* months, it only helped gangs reinforce their grips on territories across the country. Extortion remained rampant and the murder rate eventually returned to pre-truce levels. El Salvador is now the most murderous country in the world. Indeed, the truce leaves behind a legacy of destruction, marginalization, and social regression.

Fortunately, coinciding with the truce’s 3 year anniversary, the month of March saw anti-gang discourse creep back into national politics–and quickly. News reports have churned out so frequently I’ve had to stop, re-research, and re-edit this post multiple times to cover the developments (it is March 28 and I’m reworking this, yet again). I’ve highlighted 5 developments that have transpired over the month.

Fighting the Ides of March

1) San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele called out President Sanchez Ceren on Social Media for his administration’s lack of initiative toward gang violence.

Nayib Bukele has become a sort of celebrity mayor across Central America. He has prioritized San Salvador’s infrastructure, having earlier rolled out a plan to “light up” the city by installing street lights throughout the nation’s capital. He is also quite active on his social media accounts. Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he is a hit with the country’s youth.

What is significant of Bukele’s rant is the acknowledgement of multiple failed approaches to gangs, both by the country’s Conservative Party (ARENA) and his own FMLN party. He implored the country’s President to get a move-on with initiatives to tackle the issue and argued that there is no need to continue imposing new taxes on Salvadorans (such as the telecom tax) to fund any anti-gang initiatives. He stated that there are plenty of financial resources already available.

2) President Ceren promised to introduce legislation in Congress.

Shortly after Bukele’s Facebook rant, President Sanchez Ceren announced (also here) that he would introduce anti-gang legislation to Congress. This would mean plans for the immediate reduction of the prison population and an increase in military personnel patrolling the streets, creating “military safe zones” (I’ll further discuss this below). Initiatives would be implemented using $42 million generated by the country’s telecom tax. The plan is scheduled to be rolled out this week.

3) It was discovered that gang truce was in the works before the conclusion of the 2014 Federal Election.

The online news source El Faro reported that, before the conclusion of the 2014 federal election, a gang truce was in the process of being brokered between ARENA and the representatives from MS13 and Barrio 18. It published a 26 minute video in which ARENA Vice President Ernesto Muyshondt and Ilopango mayor Salvador Ruano spoke to gang members about reintroducing a second go at truce talks (the transcript available here). This was significant as ARENA and many parts of El Salvador’s population were vocal in their opposition to the original gang truce.

4) Guns that were submitted at the outset of the Gang truce were functional, contrary to earlier reports.

When the 2013 truce was established, it stipulated that gang members forfeit part of their weapon stock to authorities in a sign of willingness to hold their end of the truce. In total, gangs forfeited 498 guns on three separate occasions (the first of which was overseen by Jose Insulza, secretary of the Organization of American States), which included heavy duty weapons such as AK-47s, M16s, and FALs.

At the time of the weapon forfeiture, it was reported that virtually “none of the guns surrendered were functional”, meaning that gangs used the opportunity to dispose of their garbage/dummy firearms. This angered many Salvadorans, including the Attorney General at the time, Luis Martinez—who according to El Faro, was opposed to the truce from its outset.

Gangs agreed to hand over guns as part of their government-backed truce

Two years later, El Faro reported this was not the case. Contrary to Martinez’s claim, the paper reported that in reality, 80% of the guns surrendered were in working order (387 of the 482). While it doesn’t show that 100% of guns were in working order, the report highlighted two points: first, Martinez’s statement is indicative of how much of a political football the truce had become. Second, the report emphasized the need for better political reporting by media outlets. Acting as the fourth estate, journalist must keep tabs on their politicians, especially in a region marred by corruption.

5) A Youtube video was uploaded on March 26 in which the heads of MS 13 and two Barrio 18 factions announced that they would order their gangs to halt violent activity for  72 hours.

The gangs did this in anticipation of the government’s plan to make military safe zones. The gangs argue that “there is no need to implement measures that will violate everyone’s constitutional rights as well as the laws established by the constitution”. Given the failed truce and the sky-high homicide rate, it comes as no surprise that this was a hard statement for the Salvadorans to swallow, as shown by some of the comments left on the video’s YouTube page.

Gang youtube comments
YouTube users approached the gangs’ announcement with skepticism, calling for “death to gangs” and general feelings of distrust

The government echoed these sentiments, rejecting the gang’s statement.

Looking Ahead

It has been a fruitful month for Salvadoran gang discourse.

However, before going any further, one theme that has been underscored in my posts concerning gang activity should be made clear: there is no easy solution to the violence plaguing Central America. It’s important to remember that El Salvador’s socio-economic state is the result of over a century of repressive politics. Gang violence is just one of the fruits created by this seed; as Iaon Grillo writes, violence is an issue that runs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It isn’t something localized in El Salvador. Results require patience, which may take generations.

With that said, I want to go back to two interesting revelations explored above in respect to gang activity: increase military activity and prison reform. These are good strategies in combatting gang activity in neighbourhoods as the state needs to demonstrate that it, not gangs, enforce the law. However, by themselves, they can only provide temporary solutions. This is because they fail to address the nation’s social needs.

Increased military activity will drive out gangs from neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods will be secure, and this is good. Unfortunately, it also means that

Brazil tried fighting the Red Commando (pictured above) through increased military activity. It failed.

gang activity will be drawn out and will turn to other neighbourhoods to continue their illicit activities. This is what happened in Brazil when it tried fighting the Red Commando (Grillo, p. 103).

As a result, the sort of “hard hand” approach used by ARENA in the 2000s inevitably creeps back into the country’s strategy–what happens when all gang activity is localized in one area? Justice can take either two forms: first, firefights may ensue, resulting in the death of gang members. Second, soldiers could arrest gang members and bring them to jail, which would in turn increase the prison population. Either way, whether clean or ugly, both provide only Band-Aid solutions.

Second, the country’s plan to release 900 prisoners is also flawed, although it’s not a plan which has never been attempted: Ecuador tried this in 2014 by releasing 500 drug mules from its prisons.  Such a strategy can actually be quite useful given that El Salvador faces an overcrowding crisis in its prisons. If approved, the plan would initially release 900 low-risk prisoners. It would be in place for one year.

However, this approach is problematic because its benefits are counteracted by increased militarization. Because of the “hard hand” approach which is inherent in the military plan, liberated prisoners can be easily replaced by new criminals. Coupled with a sky-high murder rate (which as I write this, is 23 murders per day, according to El Faro), the policy creates a “1-step forward, 2-step backward” approach to fighting gangs. With increased militarization, what is bound to happen is an increase to the prison population yet again.

If hindsight is 20/20, El Salvador should heed the warnings of the 2000s hard-hand approach. The country’s Directorate General of Prisons reports that in 2016, there are over 33,000 inmates in El Salvador’s prisons—prisons that have been designed to hold only 13,000 inmates. Of those 33,000 inmates, 9,000 are gang members. The prison population rate has grown astronomically in the last 16 years, from 7,754 inmates in 2000 to 28,334.

Total Prison Population
With data from Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2016) and the Directorate General of Prisons, retrieved from Insight Crime

Thus (emphasizing yet again…), militarization alone cannot be the sole solution to solving gang activity. Militarization ignores the socio-economic problems that force youth into crime (whether it is gang-affiliated or not): for instance, the need for revamped infrastructure, education, and the need for a proper police force (this is crucial to enforcing the law),

Ioan Grillo writes that gangs feed “on broken families, poverty, and hopelessness,” so naturally, “it makes sense to scattered children in soulless slums [to] feel loyalty to no government or country, but will pledge their lives [to gang life]” (p. 232). Unless the state offers them a legitimate alternative, criminal activity will without a doubt continue. Indeed, many of new gang recruits are young men: this video was recently taken of a gangster being forced to roll around in dirt while being told to repeat phrases denouncing gangs:

Will April Showers Bring May Flowers?

With gang activity proliferating across the country, it’s hard to be optimistic that new initiatives will produce results.

As I’m about to publish this, I have stumbled upon a new report outlining the failures of “Plan El Salvador Seguro” for Ciudad Delgado, which was supposed to be an example of the government’s success in successful pacification.

However, the month of March was the noisiest in terms of legitimate political anti-gang discourse in a long while. Military activity alone will not provide a long term solution to gang activity in El Salvador, but it may be a start.


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