World Report

El Salvador’s glimpses peace in a single day

It says something of the state of the nation when a quiet day of non-events gains more column inches with the international media than a 5.3 magnitude earthquake just days before.

An understanding of this apparent skewing of priorities comes when El Salvador is identified as the source for both stories. On January 4, media reported with bored brevity that the Central American nation had been rattled by a quake with its epicentre some 21km below the Pacific off the coast of the municipality of La Libertad. No fatalities, no damage, hence no need to stop the digital presses.

Rare blip

In similar fashion, on January 11, no-one died violently, yet now the press sat up and took keen notice of matters and began to churn out copy and update internet feeds with this startling fact. 

The explanation is as simple as it is depressing. The January 11 zero body-count was the result of a rare blip in the activities of El Salvador’s rampaging gangs when, for one day only, no-one was the target of their murderous pursuits.

Up till that date, 2017 seemed only moderately improved on recent years in terms of crime, with a rate of 10 people per day falling victim to gang assassins since New Year’s Day. (The activities of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs have featured more than once in these pages.) Horrendous though the 10-daily figure is, it actually does stand as an ‘improvement’ when set against the daily rate of 16 murders across the early part of 2016, falling to 14 late in the year. The ‘free day’, meanwhile, while striking, is not unprecedented, with 2012, 2013 and 2015 providing similarly brief causes for celebration.

Observers of the criminality that plagues El Salvador can argue at length about it and the recent causes of the downturn. Government figures continue to laud Plan El Salvador Seguro, the hard-hitting security programme rolled out in July 2015 to tackle the sky-rocketing murder rate, insisting that this, combined with specific targeting of gang ‘cells’ and the isolating of gang leaders in prison, has dealt serious blows to gang activities.

Others scoff at this, insisting that the gangs are a far more powerful reality in the life of the nation and it is through their own decision to downscale on certain actions that has brought results reflected on the crime reports.

A seed of truth for this latter element lies in an all-too-brief truce brokered between MS13 and Barrio 18 by the Church in 2012 which saw a dramatic 53% reduction in homicides virtually overnight when Bishop Fabio Colindres announced that agreement had been reached between the gangs. The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén would later insist it had no hand or part in making the truce a reality. It has since hailed the success of the vast Seguro programme in bringing a 20% reduction in murders across 2016.

No fan of the gangs, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador, openly suggested in November that the Seguro was not working and called for a government review of the initiative. The prelate did not dispute the murder reduction, but pointed out that other serious crime rates were virtually unchanged.

Gang leaders

Ironically, a chance to deal with all came on the same day as El Salvador experienced its murder-free period when it was revealed that the largest of the country’s gangs, MS13, had made an offer to end all its activities – and possible dissolve – if it could enter into negotiations with government on helping members to reintegrate into society. 

A spokesman for MS13 went so far as to reference Colombia’s FARC rebels and the peace process there in seeking to describe what his gang seeks to achieve (something gang leaders utterly rejected just four years ago, it must be added).

The government thus far has baulked at the suggestion of a negotiated peace, calling on MS13 to ‘step down’ from its criminality as a precondition for any future talks.

As The Irish Catholic went to press, the Church, perhaps via Archbishop Alas, was yet to add its own voice to this latest development. 

It is tempting to believe at this point that, prompted by that earlier FARC reference, prelates have spotted a new mediation role to be played in bringing intransigent politicians and wary gang members closer to the negotiating table towards making every day January 11 in El Salvador.