How to deal with authors of murders and massacres
The bloody surge in gang-related violence which made El Salvador the world's murder capital has continued through the first two months of 2016. During the first two months, 1399 homicides took place, more than double the same period in 2015, and a rate of almost one murder every hour of every day. In addition, ten police officers have been killed so far in 2016, continuing a death toll which saw 61 officers killed in 2015. The truce among gangs and the government, which dramatically lowered homicide rates in 2012-13, has long since disappeared.
Yet most Salvadorans are not calling for a return to the truce. The continued disapproval of the now collapsed truce should not be surprising when you consider events from March 3. Eleven people were found massacred in a field in the municipality of San Juan Opico. Eight of the victims worked for a contractor to the local electric company who were installing poles for electric power cables. Three of the victims were sugar cane cutters working nearby who authorities theorize stumbled upon the massacre of the electric workers as it happened and were killed to leave no witnesses. The victims were found face down with their hands tied. Some press reports said they had been tortured.
The government said the San Juan Opico massacre was the work of gangs operating in the area. Within a day, authorities had rounded up 18 gang members they said were linked to the crime. Yet it is hard to know if this was just a round up of the usual suspects, or whether authorities actually had information tying those arrested to the crime.
Throughout the country, 20 more murders were committed on the same day as the San Juan Opico massacre for a single day total of 31 dead.
Last week Salvadorans were also reminded of another massacre carried out by gangs. A purported gang member was sentenced to 410 years in prison for the 2010 incineration of a microbus in Mejicanos along with 17 persons trapped inside.
With such savage violence, it is hardly surprising that a significant majority of the Salvadoran population rejects any idea of returning to dealing with the gangs. Reflecting that sentiment, the current administration has walked away from the 2012 truce. Since the summer of 2014 when Sanchez Ceren took office, as the truce collapsed the homicide rate soared steadily.
Another impact of dealing with criminal violence which is so heinous is that responses by the police and armed forces which violate human rights standards are left in impunity or even applauded. The reporters at El Faro have reported in detail on separate incidents where police actions against gangs led to intentional killings not just of gang members, but also of innocent civilians. These separate police killings at San Blas and Villas de Zaragoza. produced no public outcry and the police actions remain uninvestigated and unpunished.
Instead, with public opinion fully in mind, El Salvador's conservative mainstream press has been providing continuous coverage of the disclosure of a so-called "porn fiesta" within one of the country's high security prisons at the height of the truce in 2012. Video has surfaced of a dance party within prison walls where nude dancers entertained a large crowd of prisoners. The conservative press is suggesting this event was one of the benefits that the FMLN government under Mauricio Funes provided to the gangs in return for their cooperation in the truce. (Some of the defenders of the government have pointed to a BBC documentary in 2005 which documented nude dancers in El Salvador's prisons ten years ago -- perhaps it's not such a rare occurrence).
At a recent press event, Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés, was asked by a reporter from La Prensa Grafica about who could authorize the appearance of nude dancers within the prison. Munguía Payés was the Minister of Public Security at the commencement of the truce and is seen as one its key figures. Munguía Payés' answer was interrupted by the President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who accused the reported of asking an unethical question, which had only a partisan interest and was aimed at destabilizing the government.
Yet blanket denunciations of any negotiation or dialogue with the gangs can get in the way of the actual process of pacifying El Salvador. On a neighborhood by neighborhood level, communication with the gangs -- whether you call it dialogue, negotiation, or simply talking -- may be necessary. It might take the form of persuading local gang leaders to ease their enforcement of a boundary to allow young persons to go to a nearby school. It might be an agreement to allow a local community event to be a "safe zone" for a day, where the gangs will not make an appearance and the police will not make sweeps. It might be persuading a local clique to allow a young man to leave the gang.
Massacres and and grievous violence need to be swiftly investigated and punished. The need for continued strengthening of El Salvador's ability to do both is painfully obvious. But the pain and horror of massacres and violence must not distract authorities from the necessity of a multi-dimensional approach to the violence which must include prevention, must include rehabilitation of prisoners, must include community policing, and yes, may require communicating with the gangs. Equally important, the government must not descend to the level of the gangs and commit its own massacres in response to current events.