Murder-free El Salvador a 'mafia peace'

It was an event greeted with astonishment and celebration: on Saturday April 14 nobody was murdered in El Salvador.

For the first time in years, officials registered not a single fatal shooting, stabbing or beating in 24 hours. “We saw not one homicide in the country,” said President Mauricio Funes.

That this should be news underlined how much this small Central American country had become accustomed to about 15 murders a day.
The murder-free day reflected a dramatic fall in gang violence, beginning in early March. At the end of last month there were about five killings a day on average.

But the now relatively peaceful slums are hardly jubilant. Instead, they are watchful, tense and suspicious. “This is a peace negotiated behind closed doors that fails to address the underlying causes of violence,” said Father Antonio Rodríguez, who works in communities riven with gang violence. “This is a mafia’s peace.”

The day Funes announced there had been no murders, two mothers told the priest their sons had disappeared. “Look, here are the cases,” he said, waving a sheaf of papers. “It is true that homicide rates are down, but it cannot last ... the government is not capable of maintaining it.”

Truce leads to peace
Such scepticism is widespread. Bloodshed has decreased not because poverty has disappeared, or because the ramshackle state has acquired effective police, courts and jails, but because the two most powerful gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, have called a truce.

“We are living a situation of war and we have come to the decision that it has to stop,” said Carlos Ernesto Mojica, one of the jailed leaders who negotiated and announced the truce.

“There are 200 fewer dead Salvadorans a month,” said Rafael Jordan, a former gang member who now rehabilitates others through a gang violence and intervention group. “This is an opening, part of a peace process that we have been pushing for years. If someone sabotages it, it won’t be either of the pandillas [gangs] in El Salvador.”

Others allege that the state negotiated with gang leaders, softening jail conditions and offering other concessions to buy a flawed victory. Although the authorities rejected a proposal to redirect bus subsidies to gangs in return for a halt to extortion, contradictory official statements about talks have fuelled the impression of a clandestine pact.

Commentators said giving criminals impunity for reduced violence compromised the state’s legitimacy. “This gives the gangs power in the sense that they can threaten the government with resuming violence at any time,” said influential blogger James Bosworth.

Central America has struggled to tame gangs since the 1990s, when the United States started deporting Los Angeles-based Latino convicts to their home countries. The arrivals boosted local gangs’ organisation and access to arms and drug routes.—

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