Dr. Sonja Wolf is a CONACYT research fellow with the Drug Policy Program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. We asked her to comment on the 25th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Accords.
The Enduring Appeal of Gang Suppression in El Salvador
by Sonja Wolf
On January 16, 2017, El Salvador will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the peace settlement that ended the country’s twelve-year civil war. This conflict pitched the guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) against the government army, propped up by billions of dollars in US military aid. While for the average citizen it is bound to be a day like any other, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén will mark the occasion with concerts and other festive events.
It has also announced, however, that it has asked the United Nations, mediator of the earlier peace negotiations, to help produce a new “National Accord”. This agreement is meant to unite all sectors of society, often at odds with each other, in order to tackle major challenges. The invitation comes at a critical time and, compared to the usual official rhetoric that the country is forging ahead, is a recognition that local actors have proved unable to create much-needed political consensus and public policies.
The somber climate stands in stark contrast to the optimism of the early nineties, when Salvadorans were hopeful that greater freedom and prosperity were laying ahead. The war, which had originated because peaceful social and political change was impossible, had left some 75,000 people dead and the economy shattered. The peace agreements mandated a series of constitutional, institutional, political, and socioeconomic reforms. While most transformations advanced only half-heartedly, the last of these never took off to begin with.
The FMLN and the ruling government of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a conservative party that defended the interests and privileges of the economic elite, embraced fundamentally different views and expectations of their country. Whereas the left felt that a democracy had never existed in El Salvador, and the peace accords were a means to build it, the right considered that the guerrilla had attacked an actually existing democracy and the task ahead was to restore the status quo.
With a powerful part of the population committed to ending the war, but not to pursuing the vision enshrined in the treaty, the country’s future was always going to be uncertain. The peace accords remain a watershed for El Salvador, but their reluctant implementation lies at the root of the problems that have beset it since. To be sure, it was no small feat to terminate the political violence, incorporate the FMLN into the political system, hold democratic elections, and restructure the security sector. But state institutions and the rule of law remain weak, corruption flourishes, poverty and inequality persist, and criminal violence has surged.
Public opinion polls regularly identify the economy and crime as the main national problems. Homicides and extortion, both of which affect mostly poorer Salvadorans, are typically associated with street gangs. The two largest of these groups, Mara Salvatrucha and La Dieciocho, initially formed in Los Angeles’ immigrant neighborhoods. Here Central American war refugees found shelter but, denied legal status, were compelled to live in clandestinity.
In the early nineties, when the US government stepped up repatriations of offending non-citizens, many gang youths returned to their countries of origin. El Salvador, still trying to heal the scars of the war, was unprepared for the import of a new gang culture and conflict. Many deportees held on to what they knew best and received with open arms other marginalized kids in search of belonging and respect. In the absence of a gang policy, the street gangs gradually developed into a major source of fear and insecurity in many communities.
ARENA, which held the presidency between 1989 and 2009, showed little interest in dealing with social issues. The FMLN, which came into power with a discourse of change, generated huge expectations, but the former revolutionaries have not decisively pushed for the structural changes that the country requires. With leaders who have done well for themselves in the private sector, the ruling party has not seriously attempted to raise taxes so that the practically bankrupt state could be revitalized. Sleaze has continued as institutions are staffed with relatives and party loyalists, regardless of merit. Despite vouching to implement a comprehensive security policy, FMLN administrations have been recycling the ineffective mano dura (iron fist) gang policies that ARENA governments had pursued.
In late 2003, the administration of President Francisco Flores had launched Plan Mano Dura ostensibly to crack down on gangs and homicides. In reality designed as an electoral measure that would boost ARENA’s chances in the upcoming presidential contest, this repressive strategy prioritized area sweeps and mass arrests of suspected gang members. The murder rate spiraled and gang members, incarcerated in prisons segregated by gang affiliation, consolidated their internal structures and criminal involvement. Despite its counterproductive nature, mano dura resonated with a population that had tired of chronic insecurity. Indeed, its electoral appeal helps explain the policy’s endurance even under FMLN governments that face an increasingly complex security situation, but are financially stretched.
In Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, I examine the advocacy strategies of three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were aimed at promoting a comprehensive gang policy. The three agencies –a legal advocacy organization, a peer rehabilitation groups, and a Catholic development organization– had each adopted different strategies. Their approaches, shaped by organizational characteristics and ideologies, encountered obstacles in the country context, notably in the persistence of elite influence, the nature of the ruling ARENA party, and the concentration of media ownership in elite hands. NGO advocacy was largely ineffective and never managed to bring about an alternative gang policy that would have combined rights-respecting policing with social prevention and reinsertion.
In 2012 the first FMLN administration, led by President Mauricio Funes, sponsored a truce that sought a reduction in gang violence in return for job and education opportunities. But although the daily murder rate dropped by more than half, the government never lived up to its pledges. The ceasefire collapsed after one year, ushering in a renewed escalation in the number of homicides. 2015 was a particularly violent year, with a national murder rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants (compare this to 4 per 100,000 in the United States).
In the aftermath of the truce, the gangs intensified their attacks on police and soldiers in order to pressure the government into resuming the earlier dialogue. But many Salvadorans had been skeptical of the truce and, with an eye to the ballot box, the current administration has rejected the idea of further negotiations with the gangs. Meanwhile, the police have sustained hundreds of “confrontations” (650 in 2016 alone) that often seem to mask extrajudicial executions of gang members.
Despite, or because of, such questionable indicators of success in the war on gangs, El Salvador is no way nearer a solution to its problems. The authorities may not admit it, but for the citizens there is no denying the gravity of the situation. Many continue to see migration as perhaps the last best chance to escape poverty and insecurity, and are disenchanted with a democracy that promised much, yet has delivered little. The end-of-year survey for 2016 by the Jesuit University’s Institute of Public Opinion shows that more than half of the population remains pessimistic about the country’s state of affairs. On top of that, trust in public institutions, particularly central government and political parties, is ever more diminished.
El Salvador will not accomplish the aspirations of the peace accords unless traditionally antagonistic sectors of society set aside their differences and meet the needs of the historically excluded majority. The existing polarization, however, makes rational policy debates difficult. What is more, the political parties –without exception–seem unable to propose innovative policies and are more concerned with destroying their perceived enemies than acting in the public interest. The onus, therefore, is on the citizens to create the necessary political pressure and hold their elected officials accountable. NGOs can play an important role in such efforts, particularly through human rights work and awareness-raising.
It would have been unrealistic to expect that the peace accords could transform El Salvador in ways that decades of resistance to authoritarianism had failed to do. While the country has left behind the dark days of the eighties, crafting a democracy will require the consistent commitment and involvement of all citizens. Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to the peace accords is not through the annual commemorative activities. Instead, it may be through everyday struggles to recover historical memory, groom a new generation of leaders, and make El Salvador a place in which all its people can imagine a future for themselves.