El Salvador Gangs and Security Forces Up the Ante in Post-Truce Battle -- InsightCrime

This article was originally published on October 22 on the website of InsightCrime

Written by Steven Dudley

Since the dissolution of the gang truce, assassinations of police and military personnel and clashes between gangs and security forces have changed the security equation in El Salvador, closing any small window left to revive the short-lived and highly criticized ceasefire.

As of October 17, the violence had left 31 policemen and various military personnel dead in 2014, including six police in October alone. The victims range from low- to high-ranking members of the security forces and are spread across a wide geographic area. This gives the impression that they were not pre-selected or targeted, but rather were killed when the opportunity presented itself, or following security force disputes with local gang factions.

Clashes between security forces and gangs are also on the rise, officials in the police and army told InSight Crime. The police have reported 130 clashes with gang members this year; the army has had 14 just in October, compared to 12 in all of 2012.

That was the year in which the country's largest gangs -- the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and two factions of the Barrio 18 known as the Revolutionaries and the Sureños --entered a truce with the help of the government's proxy negotiating team, which was comprised of a former guerrilla-turned-security force advisor, and a bishop in the Salvadoran church.

The truce led to a steep drop in reported homicides, although critics claim this was partly because the gangs hid bodies in clandestine graves. The truce was also criticized for opening political space for, as well as legitimizing and emboldening, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 factions that participated.

In addition to gaining political capital, gang leaders were moved from a maximum-security prison to various minimum-security prisons, where they have better access to their rank and file, as well as more chances to visit with their families.

Certainly, the gangs, which the government numbered at 65,000 members during the truce with a potential reach of some 500,000, have tremendous political and coercive powers, especially in areas where they control territory and collect security "taxes" from local businesses and residents. And, in spite of waning public support for the truce, both major parties -- the left-leaning FMLN and the right-wing ARENA -- reportedly met with the gangs' leaders in the run-up to this year's presidential elections.

Election observers from ARENA claimed that the gangs used their muscle to influence the results, especially in the first round in February, which was won by the FMLN's Salvador Sanchez Ceren with a surprisingly wide margin. The second round in March resulted in far fewer complaints from opposition political observers and a much closer result, with Sanchez Ceren winning by just over 6,000 votes.

Meanwhile, proponents of the truce -- including one of the architects of the original ceasefire, Defense Minister General David Munguia Payes -- have argued that a truce is necessary to create the conditions for longer-term solutions, such as social and education programs in the poor areas where gangs are most prevalent. They also say meeting violence and gang activity with increased incarceration and repression, the preferred tactics to date, has only resulted in overflowing jails, stronger gangs and higher homicide rates.

As the truce crumbles, the Attorney General's Office is in the midst of a vigorous investigation regarding the circumstances in which the original truce came about, the benefits gang members and others may have obtained, and other potential transgressions.

The chief mediator, Raul Mijango -- an FMLN guerrilla during the country's civil war, who has since distanced himself from the party -- faced hours of interrogation about his part in forging the agreement, which fell into disrepair after the government swapped security ministers in June 2013.

The new security minister at that time, Ricardo Perdomo, initially attacked the truce and promised a new negotiation. However, his unofficial mediator, Father Antonio Rodriguez -- known popularly as Padre Toño -- was arrested in July this year and then quietly removed from the country, after investigators intercepted a series of compromising phone calls between Toño and gang members.

The FMLN government is now faced with the politically impossible task of determining a way forward. By all appearances, the Sanchez Ceren administration had been stalling since taking office in July, in an apparent attempt to avoid the political straitjacket a new gang truce would entail until congressional and local elections took place in March 2015.

However, while the previous government appeared to be trying to distance itself from the gangs, the increased violence seems to be forcing the current administration's hand in what is increasingly looking like a war. As attacks on security forces are rising, police have also killed more than 100 suspected gang members this year, police officials told InSight Crime. (Those close to the gang leaders say the real number is far higher.) And murder rates have returned to pre-truce levels.

In September, the government created a special "Council for Citizen Security" -- which includes members of the Catholic Church, business associations and non-governmental organizations -- to help it develop a coherent security plan. Sanchez Ceren's Security Minister Benito Lara also recently visited with leaders of Initiative for Peace (IPAZ), a group of religious leaders and organizations from Catholic and Evangelical churches, to talk through the government's options.

Meanwhile, the violence continues, as does the speculation about the cause of increased clashes between gangs and the security forces. Two sources close to the gang leaders, as well as one high-ranking member of the security forces (all speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation) said the gangs were targeting security forces in an effort to force a renewal of some facsimile of the truce.

Police officials and various intelligence sources, however, disavowed the claim the gangs had given the order to attack security forces, arguing that attacks on police and the army had been happening for years and that each of the deaths had a unique set of circumstances.

The dire nature of the conflict has obscured the irony of the situation: the FMLN, once a guerrilla group and now the ruling party, attacked government security forces for years in some of the same marginalized rural and urban areas where the gangs now hold sway.

This article was originally published on October 22 on the website of InsightCrime