For two decades El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world, due to intense warfare between its two biggest street gangs—Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18).
The leading cause was the mass deportation of gang youth beginning in 1992 from the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom did not speak Spanish and had little or no families in the country. Since then the official response has been repression—more police and prisons. They’ve included anti-gang policies known as Mano Dura (Firm Hand) and Super Mano Dura. With billions of dollars invested into these policies, including from the United States, the gangs became larger, better organized, and more violent—recruiting from the thousands of homeless, abandoned and war-ravaged youth and children throughout the country.
However, something phenomenal emerged a year ago on March 9 when members from among MS-13 and Barrio 18 forged a peace in one of the country’s largest prisons, spreading to other prisons and the streets. Facilitated by Catholic Monsignor Fabio Colindres as well as former congressman and former guerilla Raul Mijango, gang leaders agreed to end recruitment near schools and to turn in rifles and other weapons to the Organization of American States (OAS) representatives. Most recently they’ve enacted “peace zones” where gangs would not commit crimes or violence.
In a year’s time the peace decreased violence in El Salvador from 40 to 60 percent; by December homicides went from 14 per day until five per day, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas. The gang leaders did what no repressive plan could do—bring a badly needed respite to a country that has been in some kind of war, including a 12-year civil war, for more than thirty years.
Yet the U.S. government’s Treasury Department in the fall declared MS-13 to be an international criminal enterprise, subject to the seizure of property and assets. And on January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens that placed El Salvador on the same level of security concerns as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Honduras, and Mexico. These actions indicate a dangerous disconnect between what is possible for public safety and our government’s response.
This past July, I took part in an 11-member delegation from the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES) to assess the situation on the ground, and advise and assist where possible. The delegation included human rights advocates, a psychologist, researchers, and leaders in U.S. gang prevention and intervention programs from New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington D.C. area, and London—Chicano, white, African American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran.
We talked to government officials in the departments of health, education, and public safety including heads of the country’s prison system. We visited factories that hired gang members as well as schools, nongovernmental agencies, indigenous communities, and six prisons and a juvenile lockup.
Tattooed-faced men and women greeted us from behind razor wire as we were able to see firsthand the miserable conditions they lived under, including in facilities housing women and their children, also locked up in worn cellblocks, often without running water or electricity, in overcrowded cells and lacking decent food and medical attention. They told us that they were not “lost causes” or “without hope.” Many had children of their own—they didn’t want them enmeshed in the same level of violence they grew up with and in many cases participated in.
In September of 2012, TAGSPPES issued a report of our trip that concluded “all stakeholders must take part in a broader peace building process.” In other words, the gang peace must not just benefit gang members, but the whole of society, including establishing the necessary structural changes for real jobs, education, trauma treatment, housing, and humane prison conditions. Due to our efforts, clean potable water is being directed to many prisons. And books are being brought in to start libraries in these institutions with the support of people like musician and activist John Densmore, formerly of the Doors.
The peace building process will entail the backing of the international community as well as businesses, law enforcement, and the general population. Many in the present Salvadoran government agree, including Minister of Security David Munguia Payes and President Mauricio Funes, both of whom have challenged the official U.S. position.
For peace to last, it’s evident this will also require the backing of the U.S. government.
The United States does a major disservice by placing its resources and energies at odds with the immense possibilities brought to the table by gang leaders themselves, who are tired of the violence and now want to contribute positively to the development of their lives and their country.
It’s been proven that the single best path towards peace is when gang leaders turn their lives around, when they commit to raising families, when they dedicate themselves to working and educating themselves; and when they become the leading agents for making peace viable for all. Here’s an idea that now needs traction, something I have seen in my forty years of doing gang peace work in the United States and other countries: Sometimes from the most violent can come the most peaceful.
Give gang leaders a chance to make their own peace.