The peace negotiations in Cuba between the Fuerzas Armada Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) and the Colombian government, set to reconvene today, are not the only peace agreements being conducted in Latin America.
One year ago, the two main drug gangs in El Salvador, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, agreed a halt to hostilities in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.
And just over a week ago, the two main rival gangs in Honduras negotiated a similar pact, though not specifically a truce, again mediated by the Catholic Church. The Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 said they would commit to zero crime and zero violence on the streets.
Such mediations are not considered typical peace agreements in the traditional sense of international relations, but perhaps they should be. While policymakers and scholars argue that there is a conceptual difference between insurgency groups, rebel groups, organized crime, and terrorism, these peace agreements between different gangs suggest that such distinctions may inhibit sound policy. In fact, the peace agreement negotiated by the Catholic Church and the gangs in El Salvador does not look too different from the negotiations in Colombia. Colombian Peace Negotiations
Recent developments suggest that a final peace agreement between the FARC and the Government of Colombia could be reached by 2014. The following areas are included in the agenda for peace:
- The first area (land reform) concluded in an agreement in May. Colombia will create a land bank through which farmland would be redistributed. Farmers will receive loans, technical assistance and marketing advice as well as legal and police protection.
- When the talks reconvene on June 11, negotiators will begin to tackle the problem of how the FARC can make the transition from an 8,000-strong guerrilla army to a legitimate political movement.
- Other items on the agenda include the drug trade, reparation of victims and demobilization.
A peace agreement is likely to expedite a trend in the reduction of violence seen over the past decade. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón reported that in 2000, more than half of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities suffered from terrorist acts and the presence of illegal armed groups. In 2012, only 11 percent of municipalities were affected. According to intelligence estimates, the FARC’s total strength, including lightly-armed support militias, has fallen from some 40,000 members in 2000 to fewer than 18,000 today. The ELN, a second guerrilla group, has about 4,400 members.
Salvadoran Gang Truce
In El Salvador, the gangs trace their roots to Los Angeles, after young men fled Central America’s civil strife in the 1980s. When many were later deported for crimes in the United States, the gangs formed large affiliates in El Salvador and neighboring countries. In El Salvador, the government made some overtures to the gangs, even though the truce was between the two rival gangs.
- The government agreed to transfer 30 of the gang leaders to less-restrictive conditions. These include moving them out of maximum-security prison facilities, and giving them access to TVs and more visitation rights.
- Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes launched an initiative in which municipalities can arrange with gang leaders to become “peace territories.” In exchange for ending extortion and other illegal activities, gang members can join job programs or receive loans to start small businesses. Funes has pledged $33 million to 18 municipalities so far, a substantial sum in a poor country of 6 million people.
What have the benefits of the peace agreement been in El Salvador? Salvadoran police said that overall this year, killings had fallen nearly 24 percent, while murders in May were down by more than 50 percent from the same period last year. Homicides are down 32 percent in the first half of this year, kidnappings have fallen 50 percent, and extortion has declined nearly 10 percent, according to the Salvadoran security ministry, which attributes the drop largely to the truce.
While the peace treaty in Colombia is formal and a part of international diplomacy, the actions toward a decrease in violence in El Salvador and Honduras are informal and conducted behind the scenes. However, the remedies are very similar. Both gang members and rebel groups want more access to development and economic opportunity. The fact that gang members in El Salvador have created “peace territories” and that the government has withdrawn its security forces from those areas demonstrates that the idea of peace is not limited to provisions within formal peace treaties. Gangs have effectively demobilized in these zones, handing in their weapons and committing to peace.
Much can be learned from both of these types of peace efforts. The core issue at stake is economic development for marginalized groups—meaning farmers and peasants in the case of Colombia, and youth in the case of El Salvador. If the grievances of these marginalized groups are not addressed, however, violence may resume in both countries.