The Associated Press has published a lengthy story about the gang truce in El Salvador and whether it is a real improvement in the situation of violent crime in the country.
The AP article starts with some old news, the murder of 5 high school boys from Santa Tecla in June. This high profile murder of the boys, who it is theorized had refused to be recruited by a gang, is prime evidence for those who say the March truce is a mirage.
Officials in El Salvador don't share a common view on this point:
Carlos Ponce, an expert on crime for the Salvadoran Attorney General's Office, says the truce is a sham.
"It's all a lie, the gangs continue to operate, people continue getting killed, people keep disappearing and the gangs get stronger and stronger," he said.
The Security and Justice Ministry reports that murders in the first eight months of 2012 are already down more than 30 percent, to 1,894. For the most part, the national medical examiner's office confirms those numbers, but the two agencies disagree on how many people are disappearing. The security ministry says 335 disappeared in the first half of the year; the legal medicine institute says the number is 1,279.
"These figures are very strange," Ponce said. "They say the murders are going down, they deny the disappearances, but the case of these five students is evidence that everything is still going on. It is very likely that the gangs are adopting new ways to operate." Instead of leaving their victims in plain sight, he said, they are hiding them.
The justice ministry denies that claim, saying its figures are based on investigated disappearances, whereas the medical examiner's office is counting all reports of missing people, many of which are not verified.
"Overall we haven't had an increase. We cannot maintain strict control of the people who are registered as missing because families do not remove their reports when people reappear," Munguia Payes said.The view in the neighborhoods reflects that the gangs continue to exert their influence:
Neighbors say murders are fewer but fear still rules the streets.
"Yes, it's true that murders have gone down, but we wonder how long the truce will last," said Domitila Martinez, 53, a street vendor in Quezaltepeque, one of the areas with heavier gang activity, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of San Salvador.
"I can't talk too much, they might kill me, you don't know how they are. We the civilians who find ourselves trapped between the gangs, we have learned to survive."
Under the truce agreement, gang leaders imprisoned with their members can receive "intimate visits" in jail, have plasma TVs in the cells and communicate freely with the outside world.At this point, I think the nost important point is this. The murder rate is only one element of the problem of violent crime in El Salvador. There is much less evidence of any reduction in the levels of extortion, robbery and other violence in El Salvador's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. Since many murders before the truce were gang against gang, a truce between the gangs does not mean that there is any less violence directed at the innocent victims in affected communities. The need for a multi-faceted approach including community policing, job opportunities, youth programs, prison reform, and an effective justice system is as important as ever.