El Salvador’s Violence Dips After a Truce Between Gangs and Government

With drug- and gang-related violence epidemic in Central America, a controversial report from an El Salvador news site claiming the gangs cut a deal with the government has people talking from San Salvador to Washington, Mac Margolis writes.

04.07.12 8:45 AM ET

As news outfits go, El Faro of El Salvador is no colossus. Founded 14 years ago, the San Salvador based, online-only publication with 25 staffers boasts a modest 100,000 hits a week and a following among the small Central American nation’s chattering classes. But El Faro had much of Latin America in a lather last week when it broke a story on an unspoken agreement that put the Salvadoran government in bed with Central America’s most violent street gangs.

Citing government officials, police higher-ups, and former gangsters, El Faro reported that President Mauricio Funes’s administration had brokered a cease-fire between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, two of the hemisphere’s most feared criminal gangs that have kept the nation’s streets in cocaine and cordite for years. In exchange, authorities allegedly agreed to ease prison conditions for jailed gang leaders.

Salvadoran officials immediately dismissed the report. Tellingly, so did the bandits, who answered with an unprecedented joint communiqué admitting to the cease-fire but flatly denying a deal with the government. Both sides touted peacemaking efforts by the Roman Catholic Church, which regularly trolls the jails for troubled souls, and a sudden change of heart among the gangsters themselves. "I believe as humans we have the right to repent for the ills we have caused," Romeo “El Diablo” Henríquez, one of the MS-13 capos, told the press. His Christian moment came in a prison-yard mass celebrated by papal Nuncio Luigi Pezzuto and the armed-forces chaplain, Fabio Colindres.

In their statement, the bandits went out of their way to slam El Faro for its "irresponsible, tendentious, perverse, and unprofessional" reporting. Carlos Dada, editor of El Faro, believes his detractors protest too much. Since breaking the story, he said, El Faro’s reporters have been shadowed, barraged with menacing phone and email messages, and shunned by government officials. “The government is under intense pressure to reduce crime rates, and the strain is showing,” he told The Daily Beast.

Any other time, the report and its fallout might have been dismissed as another round of conjecture from the hyperactive Central American rumor mill. But the unusual combination of events—from the mass transfer of prison leaders to a sudden fall in crime rates—have stoked comment all the way to Washington.

Just a few weeks ago, peace was the last thing on the minds of this embattled nation of 6.1 million, where escalating gang warfare has driven the murder rate to record levels. During the first two months of the year, police tallied 14 murder victims a day. By last month, after the peace deal, the homicide rate had plunged to eight a day. It may be too soon to say amen, but a 59 percent drop in homicides is a godsend for a nation that has become, alongside Guatemala and Honduras, one of the most dangerous places in the world. With 66 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador is more than three times as deadly as Mexico (18 per 100,000).

More than prayers, Salvadorans noted that the dramatic drop in crime immediately followed the transfer in early March of dozens of top gangsters from a maximum-security prison to a common prison, where inmates are allowed conjugal visits, meetings with the press, and other perks unknown to the hardest felons. As though to seal the covenant, last Monday dozens of MS-13 gangsters, in prison whites covering their gangland tattoos, took communion in a highly publicized jail-yard mass.

No one argues that something had to be done. El Salvador’s “maras” or gangs are a sophisticated criminal machine with international reach. They are junior partners to the brutal Mexican cartels, like the Zetas, that have turned Central America into the corridor of choice between drug-producing nations of South America and the moneyed consumers to the north. The U.S. State Department reports that Mexican drug syndicates control 90 percent of the South American cocaine shipped to the U.S., leaving a trail of lawlessness and fear throughout the Central American isthmus.

Mayhem is not new to Central America. A clash between the armed forces and Marxist insurgents in the '80s turned El Salvador into a killing ground, eventually claiming 75,000 lives and driving a quarter of the population into exile. Young men fleeing civil war landed on the streets of Los Angeles only to join the gang war raging there, before branching out across the U.S. “Rape, control, and kill” is the slogan of one of the “gringo” franchises of the MS-13, which has tentacles stretching from Los Angeles to suburban Washington, D.C.

The U.S. branches of Salvadoran gangs have diversified into child prostitution, contract killings, and “stealing” groups of illegal immigrants bound for the U.S. to pocket the handsome smuggling fees.

A pushback by U.S. law enforcement captured and deported thousands of gang members, who came back home armed with the latest weapons, cash, and a web of international crime connections. Their return threatens not only law and order but the young democracies throughout the region.

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Last year, El Faro published an investigation, drawing on police and intelligence services, showing the local Texis crime cartel had allies or godfathers among politicians, judges, tax auditors, and business executives. After the report, and with government ratings slumping, the Funes administration ramped up anti-drug operations and named a new security minister, says Dada.

With violence spiking, Central Americans are clamoring for a crackdown, but the public record has been mixed. The prisons not only are overflowing but a spark away from a conflagration; 361 inmates perished in Honduras after setting their packed prison aflame in February, and 13 more died in another jail-yard uprising in late March. Nor has Mexico’s “mano dura” (strong hand) against the drug cartels—where nearly 48,000 have died since 2006—done the job.

Now embattled leaders are desperate for alternatives as the drug war rages. Guatemala recently elected right-wing Gen. Otto Perez Molina as president, but he surprised everyone by immediately calling for decriminalizing drug use, joining a chorus that now includes former presidents of Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico.

Could the Salvadoran government have taken an unorthodox step further? As speculation swirled, President Funes last week vowed to renew his war against crime, arresting over 50 gangsters, but also implored his compatriots to give the peace deal a chance. “Are miracles part of our new security policy?” asks Dada. Salvadorans would be forgiven for being agnostics.