Bukele’s Negotiations with Gangs are a False Solution to the Structural Problem of Violence in El Salvador

˙ Voces

Negotiating with the maras has become a recurrent method to deal with the violence issue in El Salvador. Virtually no recent government has resisted this approach in an effort to bring down high murder rates. Yet, to date pacts have been narrow, unsustainable, and have entailed huge privileges to gang leaders. Such negotiations should instead be transformed into far-sighted agreements that incorporate education policies, employment creation, and rehabilitation schemes with a long-term vision. 

Ever since the end of the civil war, the high rate of murders has been a consistent problem in El Salvador, becoming the top priority for citizens and the top concern for politicians. Recently, the country experienced a sudden surge in violence that started on March 25, 2022, leading to the deadliest spike of murders in decades, with 87 deaths in just 72 hours. Immediately after the tragic weekend, the Legislative Assembly, largely controlled by President Nayib Bukele, declared a state of exception that has since then been renewed each month, the last time being July 21, 2022. It also imposed a series of punitive measures that suspended fundamental liberties like the right to due process, significantly increased prison sentences (including to minors, who can now be treated as adults), and led to arrests of more than 46,000 people so far.

According to El Faro, an independent media outlet of investigative journalism, the reasons behind the recent increase in violence are linked to the dissolution of a pact made by the gangs and President Bukele, reporting that has been confirmed by the US Departments of State and Treasury. The newspaper put forward evidence concerning the pact with the maras, including voice notes involving Carlos Marroquin, the government’s negotiator. The agreement entailed concessions from the government to imprisoned gang members and the protections from arrest for some of their leaders in exchange for a reduction in murder rates. Bukele instead claims that no negotiation was brokered and that the surprisingly low murder rates in El Salvador in the last few years are a result of his Plan Control Territorial policy.

The administration’s strategy is nothing new in El Salvador. It is based on the militarization of the anti-criminal efforts through the deployment of military units to control the territory. Another example of this policy is represented by the “mano dura” campaign in El Salvador in the early 2000s, which led to thousands of arrests and to a dangerous unintended consequence: turning prisons into training camps for new gang members. Striking deals with the gangs represents no novelty, either; previous administrations had already pursued this course. According to El Faro, in 2012, President Mauricio Funes of the left-wing party, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), negotiated a truce that involved comparable terms to the current government’s deal. Though he denies it, Bukele seems to have opted for a similar strategy, and the result of reducing violence in the country was largely attained, as reflected in the record-low homicide levels in recent years. This is a consequence of the pact between Bukele and the gang leaders rather than Plan Control Territorial, which doesn’t fundamentally differ from unsuccessful mano dura campaigns that were previously undertaken.

Nevertheless, the relative peace achieved after these kinds of agreements hangs by a thread. Once either of the two parties makes a false step, the illusion of peace dissolves and the country is brought back to its violent reality. This occurs often with sudden spikes of murders, as occurred in March 2022 or as in 2015 after the gang truce officially broke and murder rates reached a record level of 103 people killed per 100,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, there are other unintended effects of negotiating with the gangs, such as the fact that striking deals “has taught street gangs how to turn their ability to kill into political influence,” as Lawfare blog writes. This becomes very dangerous for the country, since violence targeted at both rival gang members and civilians turns into a form of political dialogue with the government.

“There is a specific element to be considered when dealing with the gang problem in El Salvador, and that is the enormous weight gangs have in the social fabric of society. It’s impossible to implement any kind of comprehensive policy without some kind of arrangement with them,” José Luis Sanz, ex-director and Washington correspondent for El Faro, told the Inter-American Dialogue. The problem hence lies in the way negotiations have so far been arranged, rather than on agreements with the gangs per se, since they have been short-sighted and too narrow. “El Salvador has gone in two diverging directions that make the situation absurd. On one hand, legitimate, organic and sustainable paths for dialogue with the gangs have been closed,” he said, referring to outlawing of dialogue with the gangs. “On the other, negotiations from the presidency have been brokered outside of any institutional structure. The only thing that has been institutionalized in the country is the hypocrisy of negotiating secretly with gangs and denying it in public.”

After the pact ruptured in March, the country might now be in for some particularly violent years. Unless a new pact is forged, it will take time to solve the confrontation with the maras. A violent response of the gang leaders to the administration’s crackdown is already underway, as demonstrated by the recent killing of three policemen at the hands of the gangs, to which Bukele answered by saying that he will further escalate his response as well. The escalation could go on for a long time, especially if Bukele is re-elected in 2024. This scenario is made possible thanks to a September 2012 Supreme Court ruling that established the possibility of re-election, despite the explicit prohibition of consecutive mandates in the Constitution.

“Bukele’s government can choose between scoring short-term political points at the cost of deepening the underlying conditions that make gangs thrive in El Salvador, or venture in forward-looking, comprehensive policies that put at risk part of his political capital,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. As the crackdown on gangs continues, the administration has opted for the former. If El Salvador wants to reverse the trend towards greater violence and take steps towards sustainable peace, it has to start by incorporating a long-term vision in the negotiations. So far, pacts with the gangs have been limited, secretive, and punctual quid-pro-quos involving state concessions in exchange for homicide reduction,” as Breda describes.

Instead, the administration should focus on comprehensive proposals involving education policies, employment creation, and rehabilitation strategies. These measures could be included in negotiations with the gangs that involve all the members, not only gang leaders, since the benefits they yield are mutual and could be accepted by both sides. In order to be seen as legitimate, different mediators should take part in the dialogue that don’t come exclusively from the executive branch, such as NGOs, religious leaders and state actors at the local level. While such an approach would imply a recognition of gangs as political actors, the maras are already well aware of their political weight and their control of some parts of the territory, which is why their involvement in the process is essential. 

Lastly, the results of these policies won’t be immediate. There is no silver bullet solution without considerable short-term costs. But, once both parts of the negotiation understand the mutual benefits that might come out of a long-term comprehensive agreement strategy, a reduction in murder rates might come sooner than expected. The people of El Salvador have often been adverse to pacts with criminal organizations and the appeal of mano dura solutions is strong, but, once murder rates are reduced and a sustainable peace starts to be built, popular support could quickly follow. Considering the high level of consensus generated by President Bukele, he is in a unique position to shape a narrative that would lay the groundwork for such a strategy. To do so, however, he has to fundamentally alter his current course of action.


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