El Salvador is one of the world’s most violent countries. In 2011, 4,374 people were murdered, and its national homicide rate was 69.2 people per 100,000 inhabitants – the second highest in the world after neighboring Honduras. Yet, despite all the talk of violence, El Salvador has been coming under international scrutiny because of peace negotiations. Indeed, in March of this year, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 (both born in California), the region’s two most important gangs have declared a truce, the details of which were negotiated from jail. The government also played a role in the negotiation by transferring 30 imprisoned gangsters to more lenient prisons.
The effects of the truce have been incredibly positive: According to government figures, the daily murder rate has fallen from 12 to 5 people since the pact. In April, El Salvador even experienced its first murder-free day in years. The gangs have also vowed to stop recruiting from schools and made other symbolic peace declarations, such as laying down weapons in front of officials. The truce has had such repercussions that Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States met with both the Salvadoran president, Mauricio Funes, and representatives of the two gangs. President Funes has hoped that the gangs’ call for a truce is a show of goodwill and a genuine attempt at redemption. After a lethal attack in 2010, involving a bus fire, President Funes outlawed the gangs and gave authorization for the police to arrest anyone with the crime syndicates’ respective tattoos.
The gangs are important not just for their ruthlessness and sheer size – they both claim tens of thousands of members, a large fraction already behind bars – but also for their meddling with the Salvadorian economy. Cynics of the truce have even put forward the argument that the gangs’ racketeering and incessant disruption of Salvadorian commerce has asphyxiated the economy to the point that they needed to let it recover before plundering it again. The gangs collect “rents” from businesses in their territory. The rents are so steep that many businesses have gone bankrupt. As an immediate reaction to the truce, yields on Salvadorian dollar bonds fell to their lowest level in a year. Local businesses have also begun operating with more confidence, but many people remain skeptic.
The gangs’ reach extends far beyond the Salvadorian economy – they also have strong ties to Mexican cartels and people-smugglers. There is little hope that the truce will last if it endangers these two activities. Though the truce has represented a real improvement in term of homicides, there is little evidence that it would be sustainable in the long term. A peace depending on the good word of gangsters is, of course, tenuous at best. The root of the problem, therefore, lies in limited opportunities for the countries’ youth in face of the thrilling alternative of gang life and its economic incentives. Education is the true solution, and the gang’s promise not to recruit in schools, so long as it lasts, is the real victory.