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El Salvador’s Historic Gang Truce May Show Pathway to Peace in the U.S.

Mónica Novoa Jun 25, 2012

n mid-June members of rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18 in El Salvador marked 100 days of an historic gang truce. Gang leadership and brokers of the truce say that the development is more than a cease-fire, but rather the beginning of a peace process. In the United States, the 100 days were marked with a vigil and ceremony in Los Angeles. For supporters of the historic gang truce, it’s a recognition that the only way to combat transnational violence is with a peace effort that also reaches across national borders.

MS-13 and Barrio 18 have contributed to El Salvador’s reputation as one of the most violent countries in Latin America. Their truce signals hope that if peace and solutions to gang violence can be implemented there, they may also do good elsewhere in Latin America and in the United States. The process started in September of 2011 and the truce was called in March. The National Civil Police reports that from March to June, homicides have been reduced by 58 percent, from an average of 13.6 per day to about 5.7 per day. An estimated 800 lives have been saved. 

Cycles of Violence

The gang’s roots stretch back to restrictive immigration policies in the United States. In the late 1980’s, young Salvadoran immigrants, largely war refugees, banded together in Los Angeles often to defend and protect themselves from existing gangs. Eventually, in the Pico Union neighborhood of L.A., MS-13 was born.

A little over twenty years ago, the Peace Accords were signed marking the end of El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war between the FMLN guerillas and a government that was backed by the United States with nearly $4 billion in military and other aid. The United Nations Truth Commission found that of the more than 75,000 people killed, the government and paramilitary death squads had been responsible for 95 percent of the deaths. The war also resulted in the separation of hundreds of thousands of families as people fled for their lives to the US and across the globe, sometimes leaving children behind with relatives to care for them for several years. Many lost at least one parent during the war. Many others were never reunited with parents that did survive.

After the Peace Accords were signed, deportations of undocumented Salvadorans from the U.S. were ramped up. Then in 1996, the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, made it so that people with green cards, and not just people without documents, could be deported for a range of convictions. This sped up the deportation of gang culture in El Salvador. But in the years after the war, the country was not equipped to integrate deportees, or to provide a safety net for youth in general. In 2006 I spoke with an attorney in San Salvador who had tried a case in which he defended 30 gang members, every single one of them had been orphaned. They were a family.

One of the first reforms truce leaders asked for was humane, clean prison conditions for incarcerated gang members, with regular visits with their kids and families and job trainings. Supporters are starting to engage the business community around a broader economic foundation for peace. And the Vice Minister of Justice and Public Security of El Salvador, Douglas Moreno, is talking about investing in reintegration programs and building “culture and labor parks” to provide job training and employment for formerly active gang members and at -risk youth.

The project will seek support from private industry and be piloted with 500 formerly active gang members. The project that will be presented to Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, is estimated to cost $20 million. President Funes has given all mediation credit to the Catholic church, and has put out a call to all sectors of Salvadoran society to construct “a national accord that will allow us to overcome exclusion, the root causes that explain the emergence of gangs an let us open up the opportunity for these people, let us open up the opportunity, I’m not saying we should forgive conviction records.”

Luis Rodriguez, an urban peace activist, author, and member of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (PDF) has studied and written about MS-13 and Barrio 18 in Central America, Mexico, and the United States for twenty years.

“There’s a lot that we can offer from what we know, especially on prevention and intervention. We have a big responsibility to be peace warriors,” Rodriguez says.

Pushing Policies That Work

The group is planning a delegation with key collaborators from across the United States. They have already shared with Salvaodoran leaders a community-based gang intervention model that’s become a concrete guide and official Los Angeles policy for understanding the in’s and out’s of successful gang intervention. The policy was authored by urban peace-makers that are experts at implementing community violence intervention programs and prioritizing intervention and prevention to deal with youth violence.

On the other end of the spectrum, both in the United States and El Salvador, there are policymakers and police that have implemented and promoted enforcement and zero-tolerance policies as the only solutions to youth and gang violence. El Salvador’s enforcement only Mano Dura (strong hand) plan, pushed out by the ARENA party to help win President Tony Saca’s 2004 election, rapidly increased the number of people going to jail as it allowed suspected gang members to be arrested on the basis of their physical appearance alone. Because it was based on profiling youth, Mano Dura criminalized and excluded young people in and outside of gangs. Large-scale incarceration required a lot more resources both for people in jail and their families. Money was spent on suppression and enforcement and its consequences, with little to no resources for rehabilitation and re-integration.

At this point, it’s clear that these policies have not worked, and the media campaigns around them have only served to further marginalize and exclude gang involved youth, according to some activists. Since President Funes won office in 2009, he has increased prevention program funding to 14 percent of the Security Ministry’s budget, up from one percent during the previous administration.

Community Resources

A report (PDF) released in 2006 by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) found that at the time suppression tactics were not working and in Central America, they were taking on a social cleansing dimension that included extra-judicial killings. They encouraged the prevention route which was also more cost-effective, but they cautioned against cookie-cutter programs, encouraging that peace advocates instead look at risk factors like poverty, domestic violence, and lack of educational opportunities.

In the 2006 report, researchers recommended that Central American counties, many of which lack effective resources, implement effective prevention programs by taking stock of existing intervention initiatives run by community organization and churches. They advise for programs to build on community assessments and local partnerships backed up by national resources. They also advise that the US and others in the international community can play a role in sharing what they know about prevention programs.

“It’s very complex and very delicate,” says Luis Cardona, a member of the Justice for Gathering.

Cardona says that part of reconciliation is acknowledging that people within the gang have hurt one another, but also people outside of the gangs have been victimized. So, he says, it’s important to look at how victims can find healing and solace and if possible, for them to look beyond imprisonment of those that have caused them pain.

“Reconciliation is sacred. Its making things right with the people you’ve done wrong. And for the people you’ve victimized to one day forgive and accept you. Its not easy, but required for true healing to take place. We have a good idea of what works, we want to help, but the process belongs to the Salvadoran people.”

Rodriguez, the longtime writer, adds that restorative justice is about asking perpetrators and victims to restore what was taken away.

“You can’t restore lives or property damage, but you can restore trust,” Rodriguez says. “One of the ways you can do that is by getting gang members themselves to commit to community and to change. We’re not just talking about the least violent. It’s a very important concept. It has worked when we’ve done it in different parts of the US with people who were once some of the most violent. It works to restore trust within civil society and those that are on the margins of society. We want to get them back in. It’s another way to go, rather than just punishing people.”

The imprisoned gang members that were central to the mediations are older, between 30 and 50 years old, and at this stage in their lives, they are largely motivated by stopping the cycle of violence for the sake of their own families and society. Former congressman Raul Mijango shared about part of the process with

What is victory for them? And when I began to reflect on this with them, it turns out that their war is about subsistence, about survival. So I say, “Fuck, then when is this shit going to stop? Because they are clear in telling you, and they have highlighted this for me several times: Don’t confuse things, we are not guerrilla, we are a gang. And what do they mean by this? That they don’t aspire to political power … They are simply a social group that feels that society has denied them every opportunity to develop themselves and they have had to come together to survive. The big goal is to survive! Which means, this is a war with no end. And if there is no end, what is the cost to the country? The final reflection is: Why does this war exist? This will only have a solution if we look at the root causes.

This article was originally published by Colorlines.

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