Incarcerated 18th Street gang members
Incarcerated 18th Street gang members

Violence dominated conversation in El Salvador during the decade leading up to 2012. Daily, newspaper front pages carried photos of the most gruesome murders of the last 24 hours. Elections were won and lost on a government’s response to the country’s “security situation”. In 2011 El Salvador’s homicide rate of 72 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants was the second highest in the world, only behind that of neighbouring Honduras. Extortions, kidnappings and armed robberies were common and travelling on public buses meant taking your life into your own hands. The country was one of the most violent places on the planet.

Salvadoran citizens demanded forceful repression to combat crime and increase security. Their top worry was the visible threat posed by El Salvador’s violent and notorious street gangs, MS-13 and M-18. The government under President Mauricio Funes responded by placing military patrols on the streets and running large anti-gang operations. Frequent night raids led to more inmates in the country’s already overflowing prison system in unsuccessful attempts to establish control.

All change

Then, on 9 March 2012, the situation changed abruptly. The homicide rate dropped from 14 per day in January and February, to just 10, 6 and 2 in subsequent days. Gossip and speculation ran rampant as to the cause.

The online newspaper El Faro was the first to break the story: according to their MS-13 gang member source, El Muchacho, El Salvador’s main gangs were “on vacation”. It was speculated that gang leaders and government officials had reached an agreement whereby gang leaders had ordered a stop to their murder campaigns in return for certain concessions, mostly unknown, but which apparently included the transfer of 30 gang leaders from a maximum security prison to more comfortable accommodation.

The report brought a wide range of actors into the press arena – each eager to reject the El Faro report and to present their own version of events. The gangs themselves put out a joint press release. They denounced El Faro for “irresponsibly” reporting that the gangs had negotiated with the government and accepted money to reduce the level of homicides in the country. Instead, they argued, they had negotiated the truce between themselves, without government involvement: “We reiterate to all of society that, yes, we have been part of the problem but we ask you today to let us be part of the solution…”

It still isn’t clear which version of events is correct. In a country like El Salvador that is used to doubt and manipulation, a lack of process transparency can seriously jeopardize any attempt to build on the small opening of opportunity that the reduction in violence provides. So the confusion over what exactly happened has weakened the truce. One NGO worker close to the issue argued: “How can we support something we have no understanding of? There has been every explanation under the sun – for a week or so there were even reports from the government that the truce emerged from the ‘miraculous hand of God!’”

Public scepticism

Though the truce has, in fact, held, this lack of clarity has made it difficult for the public to believe that any real improvement has occurred. A year-end 2012 report on citizen perceptions found that while both the number of crimes recorded by the police and the number of people saying they had been a victim of crime had decreased, only 22.5 percent of those surveyed felt that security had improved. An even smaller 8.8 percent felt that the truce had made a significant difference in reducing Salvadoran violence.

However, despite the scepticism recorded in the survey, the public does seem to be changing its behaviour. Local community group leaders believe that people are more willing to go out into the street and that public park usage has increased significantly. A victims’ support investigator said they have better, safer access to at-risk areas to investigate victims’ cases. “People are coming forward with more denunciations,” argued the civil servant. “They feel more comfortable reporting their victimization.” So, while a lack of communication means that the public perception of the impact of the truce has been slow to change, lived realities demonstrate the positive effects.

A second phase of the truce, “Cities without Violence”, announced in late January 2013, is moving ahead – this time with overt government participation, albeit at the local level. Local governments of both political stripes have promised to continue to pursue community development while local gangs have made commitments to reduce violent activities and turn in weapons. The military has also announced that it will withdraw its patrols from “safe” areas, leaving them in the hands of local police.

Santa Tecla -- new football facilities as part of the crime prevention programme
Santa Tecla — new football facilities as part of the crime prevention programme

Two of the four first cities to join the effort, Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, have been pursuing community-driven public security policies for years with laudable results and are being used as best practice examples for other urban areas to follow. They base their efforts on community policing, the cleaning and rehabilitation of public spaces, and educational work with at-risk youth.

However, it took strong local leadership, community willpower and international support to achieve these levels of successful public security. Foreign governments, like the Japanese and Spanish, and UN bodies have invested time, expertise and funds to get these results – creating small, peaceful sanctuaries in a country still plagued by crime statistics quadruple those in Canada.

One year into the gang truce, a small window of opportunity has been opened to implement strategies for change. However, in order to build better security with long-term results, the Salvadoran government needs to be more transparent in its public security strategies and operations. At the same time, the international community and private business must jump into the arena and facilitate planning and project development for at-risk youth and ex-gang members so that they are integrated into local communities with access to education, training and employment.

If effective crime prevention activities can be developed, the truce process in El Salvador may build an alternative to “tough on crime” policies. This will not mean less time and less money will be needed than in conventional crack down policies. Rather, sustained effort will be required to take El Salvador’s transformative process into a brighter future.

Kari Mariska Pries is a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow in Central American Security Policy and consults on risk forecasting for IHS/Exclusive Analysis in London, UK. She lives in Ottawa and San Salvador. Her company is a LAB partner (http://lab.org.uk/researchingsecurity).