Making a Deal With Murderers

The president of El Salvador has helped save more than 2,000 lives in the past two years. Now if only he would admit it.

The year 2011 was one of the deadliest since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. There were an appalling 4,371 murders — 11 people killed every day. With 70 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, it was one of the most violent countries in the world. If that murder rate were somehow transposed to the city of New York, some 6,000 New Yorkers would be murdered every year.

The cause of the bloodshed was no secret: the war between the rival gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

These gangs are responsible for countless murders in Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in El Salvador. But they got their start in Southern California. Barrio 18 came into existence as an offshoot of a Chicano gang called Clanton 14 around the 1950s, while Mara Salvatrucha began primarily with Salvadorans and Hondurans in the late ’70s. No one seems to agree about the origin of the hatred between them, but around the late 1980s, it exploded in a bloody war on the streets of Southern California.

Few people in Central America even knew they existed — until the United States government began deporting gang members there in the 1980s and ’90s. Some were doing time in prison and were voluntarily deported in exchange for reduced sentences. Others were young people with police records. There was no contingency plan; they were simply thrown back to their war-torn home countries, where they thrived, feeding off the poverty and adversity that are so common there. Today, according to President Mauricio Funes, there are an estimated 60,000 gang members in El Salvador, a country of just over six million inhabitants.

The gangs grew more sophisticated over the years. Government inaction allowed gang members to secure control of several prisons and turn them into operational headquarters from which they ordered — and continue to order — homicides and extortion. And today they once again have cells — branch offices — in the United States. What the United States spat out ricocheted back with even greater force.

The pinnacle of El Salvador’s homicidal trend came in February 2012, when some 13 people were murdered each day. It seemed as if there was little hope of stopping the violence. The government had long insisted on a hard-line, zero-tolerance response, relying on police combat, which only increased the bloodshed. Citizens were used to living according to the grim code of “see, hear and shut up.”

But then something mysterious happened. In early March 2012, murders started dropping. Eventually, there were only about five murders a day. The new homicide rate in El Salvador — around 40 per 100,000 inhabitants — seemed a lot more like that of any other violent Latin American country, rather than one fighting a civil war., my newspaper, sought to find out why the rate had plummeted so abruptly. We learned that the authorities had transferred the top leaders of the two gangs from the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca to lower-security centers where, among other things, it is not uncommon for prisoners to have cellphones. Gang leaders on the streets talked to us and told us that they had received orders via telephone from their superiors in jail to avoid murders at all costs because they were in negotiations with the government. We published the news that the government had struck a deal with the gangs to reduce the number of murders. The government said nothing.

And then it denied it. A few days later, the minister of security and justice at the time, David Munguía Payés, a retired general, appeared at a news conference and said that no such negotiation had taken place, that the reduction in crime was simply because of the stupendous work of the police force.

His explanation for why the gang leaders had been moved out of the maximum-security prison was truly bizarre: he said the government had intercepted word of a plan to help prisoners break out of the prison by attacking it with missiles (despite the fact that there was no evidence to support the existence of this plan).

When the president appeared, he also denied the accuracy of our reporting. The truce wasn’t brokered by the government, he said. The president lied.

But sometimes, time does to government bureaucrats what the ocean does to rocks: it erodes them, causing holes to appear.

Six months after his denial, in September 2012, General Munguía Payés acknowledged to that the truce between the two gangs had been orchestrated in his office, and that the president was fully aware of it. He explained that it was impossible to defeat the gangs with repression — that they were too powerful — but that whoever could control the gang war would control 75 percent of the murders in El Salvador.

He explained that in March, when the news of the prisoners’ transfer went public, he could not take responsibility for the truce, because the country would have destroyed him. There is tremendous hatred for the gangs; citizens would have been appalled by the idea of their government’s negotiating with them. But by September, it was a different story: more than 1,000 Salvadorans who would have been buried in the country’s overcrowded cemeteries had the homicide rate held steady were still alive.

Despite this admission, President Funes yet again denied the affair, and said that he himself at least had never sanctioned negotiations.

In the meantime the gangs kept the murder rate down. This did not mean that the war had ended; it meant only that the nonaggression order was being respected as long as each side refrained from invading rival territory and the government kept them talking, with the promises of things like improvements in prison conditions. (The prison issue is hugely important to the gangs: sooner or later gang members end up there, and gang operations are largely run by the leaders inside, where the conditions are truly filthy and inhumane.)

The president continued to say the government hadn’t participated in the talks, even as officials like the former vice minister of public security, Douglas Moreno, explained how he had sat down with gang members to talk about the pact. The president didn’t take credit even after the director of the National Civilian Police acknowledged in an interview that “almost 100 percent of the reduction in homicides was due to the pact between the gangs.”

The president continued, as we say in Spanish, to throw stones at his own roof.

Things might have continued this way, except the government made a mistake. In May of this year, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice removed General Munguía Payés from his position as government minister, claiming that the post ought to be occupied by a civilian.

Soon after, the number of murders began increasing again. The gangs, upon seeing the governmental godfather of their pact removed from his post, demonstrated their power and left their response in blood. On one day in July, 27 people in different parts of the country were murdered in 24 hours.

This is the danger of pretending the government doesn’t have a pact with the gangs. That bloody July day, the gangs showed they had learned their lesson, even if the government hadn’t: the government negotiates with improvements in prisons; the gangs negotiate with dead bodies. If the government fails, they will continue to kill. As political actors in this negotiation, the gangs learned that their greatest asset, their most valuable capital, is death. And that is a lesson they won’t forget anytime soon.

Since then, the pact has been unraveling from every angle. The average homicide rate now hovers at around eight dead bodies — slaughtered, bludgeoned, hanged — every day. Eight families thrust into mourning.

Salvadorans have grown used to murder, rape, extortion and humiliation at the hands of the gangs. And they have no more faith in the government’s ability to fight back with violence. The truce, however, had the advantage of being something new. It was an attempt to do things differently, to enter gang-controlled territory without resorting to gunfire and then, from the inside, attempt to change things. It was a chance to implement public policies — like aid for gang neighborhoods and programs to help kids and teenagers discover that they had options other than joining gangs — that could reduce the power of the gangs in the long run. The problem is that we need time and peace to do these things, and for that we need the truce.

President Funes, who has less than a year left in his term, seems adamant about ending his presidency without letting the admission slip from his lips that his government designed this truce strategy, which has already saved more than 2,000 lives. It is not hard to understand why he lacks the valor to say that he gave the order to negotiate with murderers, blackmailers and rapists whose tattooed faces are stained with the letters and numbers of their gangs. All you have to do is scan the readers’ comments on any news article relating to gangs — remarks like “burn them” and “kill them all” — to see why.

However, without a president capable of real leadership through such a delicate process, without a head of state willing to fight to keep the gang leaders committed to this reduction in bloodshed for enough time to implement prevention plans, the truce will probably fall to pieces, and its demise will bring back the high murder rate.

Everything seems to suggest that President Funes will leave office without ever admitting that he has saved an astounding number of lives, probably because the numbers that really matter to him are those of a different sort — the kind that reflect his popularity in the polls.

Óscar Martínez is a reporter for the online newspaper This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.

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