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Contesting plural security in El Salvador: The gang truce in retrospect


By Chris van der Borgh and Wim Savenije

In March 2012 it was revealed that the two principal street gangs in El Salvador (the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18) had signed a cessation of hostilities or truce, facilitated by  the Salvadoran government. For the government, the truce was a new way to deal with the ‘gang phenomenon’. Instead of cracking down on gangs, it assumed that the security problems in El Salvador, which were in part the result of gang violence and extortion, cannot be solved without some kind of involvement of gangs themselves. The endorsement of the truce process by some high level officials of the Salvadoran government and their willingness to take measures to support it, were key in creating the political space of the truce.

Over the past decades gangs have become influential non-state actors claiming a kind of ‘territorial control’ in a large number of (mostly marginalized) neighborhoods and with a significant capacity to use violence and to extract resources. Street gangs have existed for a long time in El Salvador, but its characteristics changed and the number of gang members steadily increased after the civil war came to an end in 1992. The new gang phenomenon has been deeply influenced by the massive migration of Salvadorans to the US. Returning youngsters from the US ‘imported’ the American gang culture into El Salvador and most local cliques were absorbed by gangs originating from the US; especially, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. In 2013, sources near the gangs estimated that there are around 60,000 gang members in the neighborhoods and approximately 10,000 in the penal system.

Governmental policies vis-a-vis gangs have changed over the past two decades. The general trend has been from a relative neglect in the 1990s, to an emphasis on zero-tolerance approaches at the beginning of the millennium, to a certain recognition that more integrated approaches are needed. However, there exist strong pressures in Salvadoran society to securitize gang policies, presenting the gangs and the threat to security they present as requiring extraordinary – often emergency – repressive measures. The Funes administration in El Salvador (2009-2014) initially sought to do the opposite and to desecuritize the gang policies of the previous right wing ARENA governments that it replaced, but soon resorted to repressive measures to deal with gangs. Therefore, the news that a truce had been signed in March 2012 came as a surprise, and so did the fact that the minister of Justice and Public Security had endorsed and supported the truce initiative.

In a recently published working paper we analyze the truce process that started, advanced and unraveled largely in a one and a half year period. We argue that what started as a small window of opportunity, eventually failed to materialize due to a general distrust in the gangs and government policies. The implicit recognition of ‘gang power’, which was part and parcel of the truce and the (implicit) assumption that those responsible for the violence should be involved in the reduction of it was viewed with skepticism by the media and a majority of the Salvadoran population. The government was accused of negotiating with criminals and terrorists and supporting a ‘pax mafiaso’. The inclusion of non-state actors in the development and implementation of a new security policy, and the ‘plurality’ of the truce initiative, were key points of contention in public debates.

In our paper we show how despite the widespread popular skepticism, the truce did actually count on substantial political support from the main political parties during the first year, until May-June 2013. However, this support was very fragile. The political endorsement for the truce was mostly the result of the initial spectacular reduction of homicides, with 41% in the months after the truce was signed. It proved hard to criticize these rather impressive results. However, this did not imply that it was  easy for the supporters of the truce to develop a coherent ‘pro truce frame’ that found resonance in Salvadoran society. And there was only limited capacity to build an infrastructure that supported the maintenance and continuation of the truce. The truce therefore remained highly vulnerable to critique. After the Public Prosecutor and the Catholic Church had heavily criticized the truce in April and May 2013, and in a context where the electoral campaign for the country’s presidency got going, political parties made a turnaround and started to renounce the initiative. In a very short period of time, the support for the truce evaporated and the window of opportunity of the initiative closed.

The case of the Salvadoran truce shows the complexities of an initiative that can be seen as an ad-hoc ‘plural security initiative’. The very fact that this was indeed a plural initiative, in which non-state armed actors and the government cooperated, was seen as unacceptable by many and even viewed as a new security threat in its own right. Thus, the very legitimacy of the initiative, and the credibility of the participants were questioned from the very beginning. This cannot come as a surprise, since the truce was largely developed and negotiated ‘backstage’, the exact terms and agreements were not known to the public at large, and mechanisms to monitor the initiative were lacking.

However, we argue in our paper that the statement that the truce has totally failed may be too bold. The truce was too complex a process to bring in such an overall negative verdict. The truce showed that both within the government and within gangs the support for the process was mixed, ranging from support, to skepticism and opposition. And although many aspects of the truce failed, it nevertheless yielded some interesting results that should be critically evaluated and assessed.

A key lesson of the Salvadoran truce is that the support for these kinds of ‘plural security initiatives’ are very limited and that a sizable reduction in homicide rates is not always enough to build a political platform that is able to garner support. A truce process whose outcome is the institutionalization of a form of hybrid security, was unacceptable to a majority of the Salvadorans. Initiating a truce process as a means to restore state control might be more acceptable. But this would require more transparency and clear rules stipulating the cooperation between government officials and gang structures, at local and national levels, and specifying how the rule of law will be restored, as well as how that process will be monitored and by whom.

This post builds on a new paper by Wim Savenije, available here.


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