El Faro has now revealed that in February, 2014, Arena party leader Ernesto Muyshondt met with leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. That meeting is proof that Arena has acted with a double standard. From 2013 onward, it based its electoral campaign on a brutal attack on the FMLN for negotiating the so-called “truce” with the gangs in 2012. Back then, Muyshondt accused the president of betraying the victims of violence and giving in to the gangs. Today he says that dialogue within the law will be necessary to reinsert gang members in society and bring an end to the violence. Two kinds of rhetoric. Two standards.
That Arena campaign, led by its presidential candidate, Norman Quijano, was partly to blame for the decision of the Funes government to end the dialogue with the gangs and allow the truce to die. The government had promised social investment and reinsertion, but that never happened, and the murders began to increase again. Arena’s hypocrisy cornered the hypocritical strategy of Funes, who never publically acknowledged the negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. In a country profoundly wounded and filled with victims, the importance of appearances and the fear of losing votes prevailed, and led to the breaking off a dialogue which, as we now know, was seen as necessary by both the government and the opposition.
It is urgent that the poses and double standards end, once and for all. In 2015, with 6,657 homicides, El Salvador was the most violent country in the world, yet the decision makers here are more concerned with their polling numbers than with saying what they really think and carrying out an integrated strategy which, based on an understanding of the gangs’ roots, would help to make them less violent and get their members reinserted in society – all this without renouncing the role of the police in applying the law, pursuing the gangs and retaking the neighborhoods they currently control.
We assume that Muyshondt isn’t the only politician who has been in dialogue with gang members, just as the so-called truce wasn’t the only instance of dialogue between the government and the gangs. It is known that during the administration of Francisco Flores, the National Public Security Council (CNSP) was in constant dialogue with jailed gang leaders on the subject of improving conditions in the prisons and developing strategies to prevent violence in troubled communities Years later, the Saca administration combined what was known as Super Mano Dura (Super Iron Fist) with a semi-secret but official dialogue with Barrio 18. Those contacts, which eventually came to nothing, were recognized both by the then-leader of Barrio 18, Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga “Viejo Lyn”, and by the then-president of the CNSP, Oscar Bonilla. In addition, the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha say that they had secret conversations with the Saca administration. Finally, it is false to claim that the State doesn’t negotiate with the gangs. It does this every day when it negotiates plea bargains with their members – and does this, to be sure, with questionable standards, and with no success at reducing impunity.
There is no doubt that Arena must admit its lies and tell the truth. But right now it is the FMLN and the Sanchez Cerén administration which have the greatest responsibility. It would be hypocritical for the left to use Muyshondt’s meeting as a political weapon, since the FMLN, like Arena, negotiated in secret with the gangs. The current president was vice president in the Funes administration, and David Munguía Payés, who headed the dialogue process, is now the Minister of Defense. Benito Lara was Minister of Security in 2015, when the current government increased the repression. When the government took office in 2014, he told El Faro that he would be willing to sit down and dialogue with gang leaders if that would contributed to carrying out his security strategy.
Above all, it would be irresponsible of the FMLN to use Arena’s current striptease to further its political goals. In the past year the Sanchez Cerén government has been obsessed with showing its most merciless and populist side on security-related issues; during this year it has allowed the police to make summary executions almost a modus operandi. Now it has launched a simplistic campaign in favor of emergency measures which would only make things worse. To go down that path is to seek benefit from the victims’ pain and take advantage of people's fears, instead of truly dealing with the causes of those fears. For the government to label Arena as an accomplice of the gangs, and present itself as the scourge of criminals – as Flores and Saca did, with disastrous results in terms of the number of murder victims – would be vile, and wouldn’t help it carry out the true political task which Salvadorans have given it.
It was El Faro which, in 2012, revealed that the first FMLN government had negotiated a reduction in homicides with the gangs. Now El Faro does the same with Arena, revealing that it sought not just election-related favors but also a permanent dialogue if it had won the 2014 presidential election. Hopefully now, with both parties having seen their shameful deeds exposed, they’ll begin to be sincere, to speak without double standards about the blood that’s being shed every day and push for real solutions which take into account the complexity of the gang phenomenon, and which don’t amount to a cynical simplification of the problem. Over the last 20 years, the left and the right have both used and ignored the deaths of Salvadorans in their quests to win elections. In the name of all that is responsible and decent and humane, it is time for this to stop.
*The original version of this article was published in spanish in March 14th 2016.