Will the “deal with the Devil” survive El Salvador’s elections?

By Claire McNear, on 14 February 2014

Evening in San Salvador.

Evening in San Salvador.

By Ella Genasci Smith

With 14 people murdered for each day of the year, the Central American nation of El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world in 2011, according to the United Nations. Since a de facto truce was forged in March 2012 between El Salvador’s two most prominent rival gangs, however, homicide rates have fallen dramatically, representing a welcome break from the intense violence that has plagued the country for three decades. But that could change quickly following the runoff vote in El Salvador’s presidential election next month.

On March 9, Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, candidate of the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and a former left-wing guerrilla leader, will likely face former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, candidate of the right-wing National Republican Alliance, popularly known as Arena. The parties are known for their opposing approaches to gang violence, an opposition driven into starker relief by an intensely polarized public.

The emergence of El Salvador’s modern gang culture can be attributed to the political and social turmoil that has gripped the country following a decade of civil war, which led to widespread impoverishment and lack of access to educational opportunities.

The government’s attempts to suppress rival groups with “mano dura” or “iron-first” policies, as well as the United States’ deportation policies, which have resulted in the repatriation of seasoned US gang members, haven’t helped. All have marginalized El Salvador’s youth and increased the influence of local criminal networks, solidifying their loyal support base.

In the country of just over 6 million, an estimated 60,000 Salvadorans are involved in local gangs, with more than 500,000 affected by their presence, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. The prevalence of these gangs in El Salvador has made it increasingly challenging for the government to rein in the violence and, ultimately, to govern.

However, with the March 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, the nation’s two largest, murder rates in El Salvador plummeted to an average of five murders per day, a sharp contrast to the numbers seen in 2011. Details of the truce, reportedly facilitated by current President Mauricio Funes, the Catholic Church, and the Organization of American States, however, or even who participated and what was given up in return, have been vague at best.

According to the New York Times, the deal, under which gang members agreed to curb some of the worst gang violence as well as the forceful recruitment of children, was brokered in exchange for moving some of the most dangerous imprisoned gang leaders from maximum-security prisons to lower-security locations.

The gangs reportedly also pushed for better work opportunities for their members in local farms and bakeries. The second phase of these peace negotiations, still at an early stage, will include the creation of 11 “peace zones,” or areas in which criminal activity is forbidden.

Despite the potential positive social and political effects of this truce, not to mention the estimated 5,000 lives already saved since its inception, President Funes has denied direct involvement in the negotiations.

As the next round of voting in the election for Funes’ successor draws near, there has been intense domestic scrutiny of the two-year truce. Because of the lack of publicly available information about the conditions of the truce, many Salvadorans fear the government resorted to paying off the gangs, or that gang leaders see in this agreement the potential for political influence.

Others suspect that Mexican drug cartels are behind the negotiations, preferring peace in El Salvador as they move drugs through the country to the US market. Moreover, the high incidence of extortion and rape and a pervasive drug culture remain critical problems, making civilians skeptical of the power of the truce.

Quijano, the probable Arena presidential candidate and a strong opponent of government cooperation with gangs, has denounced the truce as a “pact with criminals.” He has made it known that if he wins, the truce will cease to exist, citing instead a need for greater suppression of gangs as well as the placement of gang members in military, not civilian, prisons, as is typical today.

Vice President Sánchez Cerén, unlike his overtly supportive FMLN vice-presidential running mate, has never publicly endorsed the truce. This is perhaps out of fear of alienating conservative voters. Yet despite this apprehension, Sánchez Cerén has promised that, if elected, he will work with his opponents, an important step toward a stable and violence-free El Salvador.

The outcome of the election is far from certain. Both the FMLN and Arena have recently faced considerable political setbacks. Arena’s reputation has been damaged by corruption allegations while the FMLN must confront the possible weakness of the truce following the discovery in December of a mass grave in the outskirts of San Salvador containing the remains of 44 victims, presumed to be the work of Barrio 18.

Much rides on the outcome of the election, which is critical to the future political, social, and economic stability not only of El Salvador, but also of neighboring countries Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

Surely Sánchez Cerén’s approach to gang-related violence, his ability to learn from the government’s failed hard-handed policies and to work toward a more stable society, is what will most benefit the region.

What is lacking from the process is transparency. If the government wants Salvadorans to have faith in negotiations with some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, citizens must be made aware of the specifics of the agreement and its conditions. They must understand how gang leaders are to be held accountable. Without this information it is no wonder skepticism persists.