They had faced off many times before, on the streets, with guns in their hands. But when top leaders of two of the hemisphere’s most violent street gangs sat across from one another in the stifling air of a maximum security prison here this year, the encounter had a very different aim: peace. With a military chaplain and a former lawmaker officiating, the imprisoned gang leaders held a moment of silence for the thousands of people their street armies had killed.
After a few more meetings and the government’s concession to transfer 30 of the leaders to less-restrictive conditions they shook hands on a pact to put an end to the killings. A Roman Catholic Bishop in El Salvador claimed that the recent drop in homicides in the Central American nation is due in part to the Church negotiating a truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs.
With 30,000 to 50,000 members and weaponry that includes assault-style rifles and grenades, the two gangs are virtual armies that have the power to affect the security of the entire region and they have used it to terrorize populations still weary from years of civil war and instability. Now the truce is moving this country in the opposite direction, the authorities contend, leading to a precipitous drop in violence.
Homicides in this country of six million people are down 32 percent in the first half of this year; kidnappings have fallen 50 percent; and extortion has declined nearly 10 percent, according to the Salvadoran security ministry, which attributes the drop largely to the truce. The peace talks involved the region’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which trace their roots to Los Angeles.
Their ranks mushroomed in the United States after young men fled Central America’s civil strife in the 1980s. When many were later deported for crimes in the United States, the gangs formed large affiliates in El Salvador and neighboring countries. In a string of attacks two years ago that killed more than 16 people, gang members held up passengers on city buses and burned one bus while it was filled with riders.
These prisoners, some branded head to toe with gang tattoos, now speak of a new day. They raise the prospect of working instead of stealing to make ends meet. They liken the truce, however fragile, to the peace accords that halted the 12-year civil war here in 1992. “We have shown good will,” said Victor Antonio García, a Barrio 18 leader deported from Los Angeles.
“But now the government has to get involved. We need, like, an affirmative action law here for gang members who quit and need jobs.” The truce has made for some head-spinning moments. Gang leaders sat down last month with José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who, as if at a summit meeting of regional leaders, called the truce a promising turn in stemming the tide of violence in Central America. Later, six masked men symbolically laid down high-powered weapons at his feet.
“If the presence of the O.A.S. secretary general helps in this peace proposal, I will be here,” Mr. Insulza said. Many remain skeptical that the truce will stick, noting the lack of alternatives for young men in poor neighborhoods. After a sizable drop, the number of homicides rose again early this month, and reports of extortion and disappearances remain high, leading the chief medical examiner to warn that the pact “may be in danger of fracturing.” The truce did not halt all members’ ruthless ways.
Some who have violated the truce have been killed themselves, according to gang leaders and a social worker involved in the talks. Gang leaders say they cannot control all their members. That some violence continues was evident this month at the morgue, where Wendy Maritza Rodríguez wailed “Oh, my love! My love!” as workers removed a white sheet from the corpse of her nephew, who was a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. He was killed, she surmised, for trying to quit. “If you try to do something else with your life, they kill you,” she said, wiping away tears.
The government at first denied any involvement with the truce, and then announced it was accommodating a peace effort pushed by Roman Catholic Church leaders, social workers and gang members. The prison agency acknowledged it had agreed to move the gang leaders out of maximum security, provide televisions and make other concessions, like increased visiting rights, to encourage the truce.