May 12th 2012 | SAN SALVADOR |
MEMBERS of El Salvador’s maras, or street gangs, make little effort to hide their affiliations: they can be spotted easily thanks to their head-to-toe tattoos. Formed in Californian jails and exported back to Central America by deported migrants, the mobs have made El Salvador one of the world’s most violent countries. Last year 4,374 murders were committed, as the gangs fought for territory—a rate per head 15 times higher than in the United States.
But now quiet reigns in the country’s roughest districts. In March the two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, declared a truce, cutting the murder rate by two-thirds overnight (see chart). Police say May has been even calmer. The rate is now close to that of fairly stable Brazil.
The mobs have since made further concessions. On May 2nd they promised not to recruit in schools. Five days later inmates at La Esperanza, an overcrowded prison, vowed to stop extorting people using jail phones. “I want to ask forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change,” said Dionisio Arístides, the Salvatrucha leader. “We’re human beings who aren’t just here to do evil.”
Not everyone believes that. “People are breathing easier. But there is a feeling it could be the lull before the storm,” says David Blanchard, a priest whose church sits between rival gang patches in San Salvador, the capital. There is a suspicion that the maras may be letting businesses recover, the better to extort from them later. Over 60 shops near Mr Blanchard’s district have shut in the past year, after having to pay “rent” of $5-15 a day. Even people-smugglers say they cannot turn a profit, since the gangs demand 70% of their loot.
The government’s role in the truce is murky. Just before a legislative election on March 11th, it transferred 30 senior gangsters from the Zacatecoluca prison (nicknamed “Zacatraz” for its harsh conditions) to laxer jails. Soon afterwards, it withdrew the army from guarding prisons. Officials deny orchestrating the pact, and say the inmates were moved to facilitate talks rather than as an incentive to strike a deal. They say that Fabio Colindres, a Catholic bishop who ministers to prison workers, brokered the negotiations. The church backs this up.
Nearby Belize offers a cautionary tale about the fragility of such truces. Last September its government openly reached a pact with the country’s gangs following a shoot-out at a mobster’s funeral. Officials brought gang members in from jail for a summit and met their demands for jobs. About 200 mareros now mend roads and clean parks, costing $20,000 a week.
Buying criminals’ co-operation is controversial. “This must be upsetting to hardworking cane farmers…who have not gotten an audience with the prime minister for many years,” the Belize Times complained. Douglas Singh, the security minister, counters that the scheme pays for itself: “Violence has a cost to tourism, as well as police investigations and post mortems. If the result [of the agreement] has been a reduction in violence, then what is it worth?”
But the truce is now on the rocks. Between September and March Belize averaged seven murders a month, half the rate for the previous six months. In April, however, two gang leaders were killed, sparking a wave of reprisals. The month saw 21 murders, the most in over two years.
As a stopgap measure, tenuous ceasefires can still be useful. Mr Blanchard says El Salvador’s “might give us a breathing space to stop the maras’ recruitment”. The government is using the calm to complement its “iron fist” strategy of mass incarceration with new rehabilitation schemes: a pilot business park that would hire 500 young offenders is set to open in early 2013.
Nonetheless, the huge effect of the truces on public safety highlights the imbalance of power between the mobs and Central America’s weak states. “People say what good news it is,” says María Silvia Guillén of FESPAD, a think-tank. “But [the gangs] are the ones who will decide at what point people get to live in peace.”
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