El Salvador gang leaders confirmed that they have agreed amongst themselves to reduce violence, setting the stage for a new political war over the dynamics of El Salvador's homicide rate.
In a joint statement, the leaders of El Salvador's largest gangs -- including the MS13 and Barrio 18 -- said they had forged a truce on January 17. As a result, they said, El Salvador's murder rate dropped from an average of 14 homicides a day to less than five a day over the following week, and included the first homicide-free day of the year (something that was also confirmed by police).
Gang leaders said they voluntarily committed to this agreement, despite what they called "unfavorable conditions," in order to show the government that "it cannot continue ignoring that 'Maras' and street gangs can be an important part of the solution." They also said the gangs would begin a "serious peace process" if the state and civil society were ready to engage as well.
InSight Crime Analysis
While gang leaders have claimed credit for a very short-term drop in violence, the government has stuck to its guns, reiterating that it "does not and will not negotiate" with gangs. Both the gangs and authorities have their own interests at stake, and in the coming weeks, both will likely present two very different interpretations of what is happening in El Salvador. This complex scenario of competing interests will make it extremely difficult to determine the gangs' actual impact on violence -- and who should bear more responsibility for committing that violence.
For its part, the government will likely downplay or attribute any short-term drops in homicides to their own initiatives, and may also hold up new violence as evidence of a broken truce. In one recent example, police attributed the murder of five road workers to gang rivalries. Meanwhile, in their latest statement, gang leaders blamed death squads for a large portion of El Salvador's violence and claimed that these groups operate with support from public and private entities.
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As InSight Crime has pointed out previously, the announcement of this new truce looks particularly timely given El Salvador's upcoming elections in March. The annoucement of this truce appears intended to boost the gangs' political clout, and thus aid them in securing concessions -- such as halting the transfer of gang leaders to maximum security prisons. Gangs may also be feeling cornered by a government whose head of police recently told the country's cops that they should use their weapons on criminals "with complete confidence."