The aftermath of the gangs shutting down the transport system

The final days of July saw the bus system of greater San Salvador shut down as El Salvador's powerful gangs threatened death for any bus drivers who ventured out on their routes.   It was a powerful show of power by the maras.   And it has the country's government on the defensive to try and explain why the gangs seem ever more powerful and the toll of victims is ever increasing.

Al Jazeera produced a video report with a good overview of the situation.   The Washington Post also tried to summarize the situation in a piece titled Driving a bus is a death sentence in El Salvador's capital city.   But if you read Spanish, the best analysis, as always, came from El Faro in an analysis by Roberto Valencia providing ten answers to help understand the bus stoppage.   Among the points made by Valencia:

  • The stoppage was initially the product of all three main gangs, but after Tuesday, only the 18 Revolucionario gang was continuing to prevent buses from running.   (Most English language press talks of only 2 main gangs, but Barrio 18 in El Salvador has split into two main factions:  18 Revolucionarios and 18 Sureños.   The Revolucionarios are known for their aggressive violence).
  • The best explanation for the stoppage is that the gangs wanted to show the government the level of power they can exercise.   And they succeeded.
  • The bus stoppage was not the product of  ARENA trying to destabilize the government.   Neither the right nor the left has allies in the gangs.
  • The government has been unable to stop gang leaders in prison from giving instructions for actions like the bus stoppage despite all their efforts.
  • There is no reason to believe the bus stoppage could not happen again or that the government can cure the gang problem in the short or medium term.

The response of the government has been to put more police and military on the buses to protect drivers and passengers and to ever more aggressively target the gangs with deadly force.   The PanAm Post described the policy in an article titled String of Driver Murders Invoke Militarized Transport for El Salvador, and the potential it could be counter-productive:
According to Jeanette Aguilar, director of the University Institute for Public Opinion of UCA El Salvador, it was the government’s refusal to renegotiate with gangs that led to this latest escalation in violence. 
In late June, gang leaders held at the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca sent a letter to the National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence calling for renewed dialogue. It was after their letter received no response that the gangs demanded public buses abandon their routes, paralyzing services in 14 municipalities. 
“This is a new chapter in the escalation of confrontations between the government and the gangs, which were aggravated last semester,” Aguilar said. 
“On the one hand, the government refusing to talk with the gangs. On the other, these gangs have threatened to seek revenge for what they claim are government-mandated extrajudicial killings.”... 
Aguilar says El Salvador’s security forces have radicalized their operations in response to gang attacks on judges, jail employees, and the killing of 40 police officers and five army soldiers. 
“The government has applied an eye-for-an-eye policy, and it will leave us all blind and dead if it does not stop soon,” Aguilar said.
Although the buses are now running again on the streets, with an increased presence of military patrols, the war between the gangs and government forces continues unabated.   Deadly attacks on police continue as the AP reports:
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Suspected street gang members have killed a policeman in El Salvador, the fifth officer to die in attacks this week.

The National Civil Police communications office said Friday that an officer was shot by two men at a police post in the township of San Ignacio in the department Chalatenango, which borders Honduras.

Four officers were slain in three earlier attacks this week. Since January, gangs have killed 40 police officers, a police mechanic, 15 soldiers, six prison guards and a prosecutor. In all of 2014, 39 police officers were killed.

Authorities say the gangs are trying to pressure the government to negotiate a treaty with the gangs like a previous one that saw the homicide rate drop precipitously. The government has said repeatedly it will not negotiate with criminals.
Attacks on buses continue as well.   From a Reuters report:
Suspected Salvadoran gang members killed four people and wounded seven more on Wednesday in an attack on a bus as it traveled down a rural highway near the capital, officials said.   The bus driver, a fare collector, an army corporal and a passenger were killed, police said.
For the vast majority of Salvadorans who are trapped in this spiral of violence, there are feelings of frustration, rage, and hopelessness.  Daniel Alarcón explored the current situation in his piece in the New Yorker titled The Executioners of El Salvador:
 Last week, the Salvadoran defense minister, David Munguía Payés, told the press that there were somewhere between five and six hundred thousand people involved with gangs. Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 are the two most powerful organizations, but there are many others. If that figure is to be believed, that’s about ten per cent of the country’s population dedicated to drug dealing, extortion, and mayhem—so what do you do? Again and again, I heard the same solution being offered, sometimes blithely, sometimes through jaws clenched in rage: kill them all. Kill their girlfriends and their families. Kill their children. One man apologized as he proposed this solution—he found it unseemly to be advocating genocide—but most did not. One young woman, soft-spoken, exceedingly polite, detailed her life in a gang-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. It was one terrifying encounter after another, each delivering the same dispiriting lesson: she was helpless in the face of the gangs and their malevolent power. She had done everything she could to avoid them, and still they found ways to control her life. Her father was forced to pay extortion money to one of the gangs—she wouldn’t say which one. By the end of our conversation, she was almost weeping with fury. “I’m a Christian,” she told me, “but those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all.” 
It’s easy to empathize with that anger. I heard her stories and others like them, and I confess that I began to feel it, too. But can you create policy from rage? Every time I heard this horrifying solution discussed, I felt despondent. 
The Salvadoran public, by an overwhelming majority, does not want the government to seek another truce like the 2012 truce, despite its dramatic reduction in the murder rate.  InsightCrime has a post titled Should El Salvador Renew the Gang Truce?  which reports on a new study by Arizona State University and FUNDE.  That study sheds doubts on whether the short term benefits of a reduction in gang homicides is worth the long term cost if gangs are able to solidify control during the truce and show they can extort benefits from the government with the threat of returns to past levels of violence.

El Salvador's Attorney General Luis Martinez is trying to make sure that there is no return to a truce with the gangs.    He has been an outspoken critic of the 2012 truce, and told the Associated Press this week that his office was conducting an investigation of high officials in the Funes and Sanchez Ceren administrations for illegal conduct in any deals which might have been struck with the gangs.  

The IPAZ churches, however, continue to call for a process of dialogue with all sectors of society including the gangs.  They issued a press release during the bus stoppage condemning the attack on the transport sector, but also insisting that all sides look for peaceful solutions.  The churches declare that anyone who has committed a crime must be held accountable under the law and pay the price, but this fact alone does not prohibit the possibility of dialogue.  Still, when Lutheran bishop Medardo Gomez was quoted in the press calling for this dialogue, the posted comments to the article were vitriolic and negative.

One can still find small projects successfully offering young men alternatives to the gangs.  From the BBC, for example, a story titled Ending the Cycle of Gang Violence in El Salvador describes a garment factory which is employing former gang members.

Or the evangelical pastor I met last week in the heart of a Mara Salvatrucha controlled neighborhood.   His ministry was sponsoring a mini-marathon that morning and a drum corps, activities designed to occupy youth.   He emphasized that deep in an MS controlled community it wasn't too bad -- it would be much worse to be in a community with a gang boundary running through it.   The killing occurs where the gangs bump up against each other.

The evangelical pastor asked that we pray for his work -- a lot of people were asking for prayers, nothing else seems to be working.


Carlos X. said…
Tim, thanks for this wrap-up. It's depressing. To me, the gang truce scenario seems to closely track the experience in Denver, where a strategy was tried of civic/religious leaders meeting directly with gang leaders to produce a "cease fire," resulting in about a 60% reduction in the murder rate for a while (sound familiar?). The problem was that the "cease fires" didn't hold, and the murder rate has most recently skyrocketed (again, sound familiar?). What is missing, it appears, is a follow-through. The gang truce in El Salvador, whatever the merits of the debate are, it seems to me, was a window that if it was ever open, it is now closed. What it had going for it was that it was a system-wide solution, able to produce immediate results. Everything else, either isn't systemwide: "repression" tactics are limited to particular arrests, specific incidents, targeted operations, etc. Or it does not yield immediate results: tactics that aim at ameliorating the "root cause" conditions will take decades to take effect. One thing we have not yet seen attempted is a true unification effort. Sanchez Ceren's "white march" earlier in the year seemed like an opening gambit that left everyone waiting for another shoe to drop that never did. You would think that because El Salvador is a small country, and the political clamor for a solution is there, that there would be a great opportunity for a leader to step in, FDR-style, fire-side chats and all, and unite the public (and therefore nudge the various sectors) around a detailed policy. Last point: the bus stoppage could be an opening. The placement of patrols on buses could be a start. In Mexico City, a lot of progress was made by targeting drunk drivers. A variant of Giuliani's "broken windows" strategy (if you pursue minor crimes, it will have a carry-over effect), the program seemed to work to reduce gang presence by having police flex their law enforcement muscles fighting DUIs, slowly displacing gangbangers. Similarly, having law enforcement on the buses (preferably, all buses), would effectively translate to a major, permanent force deployment throughout the cities/country, and could be a major first step towards reclaiming the territory.