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The Problem with the Gang Truce Isn’t Strategic, It’s Political

Bo Carlson

 
 

Editor’s Note: Read the original version of this column en español.

 

Two weeks ago, the National Civil Police detained David Munguía Payés, a former Security Minister and key figure in El Salvador’s gang negotiations in 2012. When it issued the order against Munguía Payés, the office of the Attorney General also authorized the detention of ex-President Mauricio Funes Cartagena, who has received asylum in Nicaragua. In addition to the accusations of arbitrary acts, breach of duty, and illegal association linked with the truce, Funes is the subject of a civil proceeding for illegal enrichment.

Although Munguía Payés and Funes should not be considered above the law, the case against them represents a worrying trend. Instead of serving as a public policy option that Salvadorans can openly debate, the “gang truce” has become a tool used by political parties to levy accusations of wrongdoing against one another.

Former Minister of Defense and Security, David Munguía Payés, being escorted by police officers after an initial hearing at the Isidro Menéndez Court in San Salvador. Photo from El Faro: Carlos Barrera
 
Former Minister of Defense and Security, David Munguía Payés, being escorted by police officers after an initial hearing at the Isidro Menéndez Court in San Salvador. Photo from El Faro: Carlos Barrera

Politicians and the media should reduce the stigma surrounding gang negotiations so they can be one option among many to confront violence. If the current or future government wants to consider a new truce, they should be able to do so without fear of reprisal from the opposition.

In 2009, when Mauricio Funes entered office, homicides in El Salvador were more frequent than in many war zones: 71 out of every 100,000 inhabitants were killed, the highest rate in the world. Given the failure of several mano dura policies to reduce crime, the Funes administration began a series of secret negotiations with MS-13 and Barrio 18. El Faro revealed the details of those conversations in March of 2012. Soon after, Munguía Payés, then Minister of Justice and Public Security, announced the truce.

Within the following nine months, the homicide rate fell by 41% and the OAS committed itself as a partner for peace. However, in May 2013, the Supreme Court declared Funes’s 2009 nomination of Munguía Payés as defense minister unconstitutional as he was a retired military officer in an office constitutionally reserved for civilians. Shortly after the ruling, his successor, Ricardo Perdomo, abandoned the gang truce. In 2014 and 2015, the violence returned even more forcefully, reaching a rate of 105 homicides for every 100,000 Salvadorans.

Since 2013, various researchers have studied the consequences of the truce. One study, conducted by the Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, estimated that the truce saved the lives of 5,500 Salvadorans over a period of two years. José Miguel Cruz and Angélica Durán Martínez, two political scientists based in the United States, consider the reduction in homicides as a positive development. However, they also note that in certain cases, the gangs substituted more “visible” homicides for disappearances to appease the government.

U.S. journalist Steven Dudley emphasizes the political capital earned by gangs as a negative consequence of the truce. The negotiations also facilitated an opportunity for personal enrichment for the bureaucrats involved. And while the homicide rate clearly fell due to the truce, it remains unclear whether the frequency of extortions increased or decreased. Still, other researchers highlight the failure of various versions of mano dura enforcement.

While researchers have identified both positive and negative consequences of the truce, Salvadoran politicians have chosen another route. When Munguía Payés announced the truce in 2012, President Funes denied personal involvement. His electoral opponent in the Arena party cast doubt on official statistics, accusing Funes of “lying about the violence like communists lie.” In 2016 and 2019, various bureaucrats were tried and absolved for their involvement with the truce.

Even today, Attorney General Raúl Melara accuses senior members of FMLN and Arena of collaborating with gangs, while more details come to light about secret negotiations among Nayib Bukele’s advisors, Barrio 18, and MS-13. Instead of treating the gang truce as a topic of debate, politicians use it as an accusation to discredit their opponents.

The stigma surrounding these negotiations dissuades politicians who want to reduce violence from including a truce among their options. If the media and politicians spoke more directly about the pros and cons of negotiations, the Salvadoran people would have more and better tools to make their own evaluations of the truce. For example, some would consider the reduction in homicides to outweigh the rise in disappearances. Others would decide that the government should never hold conversations with a group as violent as MS-13 or Barrio 18, even if they could save lives. A third group might think about the perverse incentives that a corrupt official would have to negotiate a truce.

No matter what conclusion the Salvadoran people reach, negotiations with gangs should be informed by facts rather than stigma and fear. Emphasizing results and guaranteeing greater transparency on the part of the government are key in the fight against crime today.

 

Bo Carlson is an intern with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. His research focus is global development.


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