El Salvador, a country that has struggled with crime control issues, insecurity and weak public institutions for decades—and ranks as the second most violent nation in the world—has recently witnessed a shaky truce between the country’s main rival pandillas (gangs), Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The truce is praised by government officials and supporters as a progressive strategy to increase security and offer an alternative to the tough-on-crime policies that are prevalent in Central America.
But while the two gangs have put aside their mutual hostilities, the truce masks deeper threats to El Salvador’s public safety.
The drop in lethal violence that has followed, which the Salvadoran police claims has reached a 60 percent decline in homicides across the country, is a noteworthy and most welcome statistic. But truces distort crime data, painting a false picture of a successful and effective law enforcement apparatus that belies the reality.
In reality, MS-13 and Barrio 18’s crime strategies have merely evolved, becoming more discrete and ambitious, but no less severe.
Still, truces between rival gangs are important milestones in their evolution. Mutual agreements to end reciprocal violence indicate that emotions have been subtracted from the decision-making process. A cost-benefit analysis takes over as the determining factor in gangs’ modus operandi as they pursue more complicated and lucrative criminal activities to maintain a low profile.
Salvadoran gangs have reached this level of criminal sophistication. MS-13 members in El Salvador, for example, were recently arrested for allegedly operating a counterfeit operation, fabricating and selling false government-issued identification cards. High-ranking police executives have also publicly confirmed that Salvadoran gangs are now involved in loan sharking schemes, money laundering and narcotics dealing and distribution.
Perceived drops in violence, aside from masking other forms of crime, can encourage law enforcement not to pursue initiatives to combat organized crime as aggressively as before.
Less visible crimes translate into a diminished societal demand to improve security. Politicians in turn become less motivated to assign resources to the criminal justice system, resulting in the stagnation and deterioration of the public safety apparatus. Competing budget demands and lack of resources worsen this dynamic, especially in El Salvador, where scarce resources must be continually reallocated to fill never-ending expenditure gaps. Recently, Salvadoran police officers organized an unprecedented agency-wide radio blackout as a way to protest several months of unpaid wages and pressure authorities.
Weakened law enforcement agencies make it easier for gangs to operate without fear of reprisal, allowing them to accumulate enough resources and status to penetrate public institutions. This is especially dangerous when gangs are venturing into more lucrative crime activities, which afford them new opportunities to amass more influence and power.
Perhaps the most damaging element of El Salvador’s gang truce is what key stakeholders—particularly the state—have conceded and will continue to concede to keep it going. Though the Salvadoran government claims to have not been directly involved in negotiations with gangs to force a truce, the government is inextricably wedded to its success. And in the current framework, it is MS-13 and Barrio 18 that hold the cards, not President Mauricio Funes’ government.
The more political capital the state invests in the longevity of the truce, the more emboldened the gangs will feel to make demands—and significant ones at that. This process is already under way in El Salvador. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s announcement of a significant reduction in reported homicides in March 2012 coincided with the transfer of the command structure of MS-13 and Barrio 18 from the maximum-security prison to less secure ones. Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés has since admitted that the transfer was a strategic concession aimed at consolidating the pandillas’ leadership, which would help ensure the gangs’ adherence to the terms of the truce.
Gang leaders have also negotiated better amenities within prisons, such as plasma TVs, cable, fast food deliveries, and an increase in the frequency of, and time allowed for, conjugal visits. There have also been more troubling concessions granted to keep the truce intact. One concession designates certain municipalities as “sanctuaries,” where the government has to suspend certain police operations. Gang members have also been incorporated into community groups to serve as representatives of their organizations at the local level.
An additional concession is the repeal of laws specifically designed to combat criminal structures, like the Gang Proscription Law and Article 20 of the Criminal Procedural Code that allows prosecutors to offer immunity to offenders in exchange for their testimony against fellow members of a criminal group.
These concessions will facilitate criminal operations, diminish law enforcement efforts, and create conditions that facilitate gang infiltration of public institutions and community groups, and corruption of state officials.
The case of Mexico offers a clear warning for El Salvador. For decades, political circumstances obligated Mexican narcotics organizations to operate with relatively reduced violence, making them less visible and thus attracting less attention. But years of negotiations and concessions between the gangs and the Mexican government resulted in a deteriorated security apparatus and fortified crime syndicates.
When conditions shifted, the criminal groups had operated unchecked for long enough that they had infiltrated institutions and held enough resources and influence to shift the balance of power in their favor.
El Salvador should learn from the experience of its northern neighbor, and be smarter about how much it invests in the current truce—and, by extension, how much it concedes to MS-13 and Barrio 18. Negotiations between the government and gangs should cease immediately. Instead, a comprehensive approach to fight these criminal organizations must be designed and executed.