I just finished reading an excellent new white paper titled The El Salvador Gang Truce and the Church: What was the role of the Catholic Church?. The paper is written by Steven Dudley, one of the directors at Insight Crime, and is the first of a whitepaper series from the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at the American University.
The paper takes a close look at the role of Bishop Fabio Colindres as a public face to the mediation effort and the reaction of the Catholic church hierarchy in El Salvador:
When asked why they chose the Church to help in the process, the negotiators have danced around this subject. The government’s chief negotiator Mijango focused on what he called the “moral authority” the Church held in El Salvador and its experience in mediating conflict in the country. He also drew on what he said was a shared understanding of the Church’s longtime role in El Salvador. “There is a recognition of the Church’s role as an institution that had mediated the conflicts that we have suffered as a society,” Mijango explained. “No one has the moral authority the Church has in this society.”
There is, of course, some truth to this, but the decision to include the Church seemed more like a ploy than a strategy. For the negotiators, and possibly the gangs themselves, the focus was not on drawing from that “moral authority” to establish firm ground upon which to build the peace, but on using that “moral authority” to calm a cynical populace, and convince a skeptical business community to participate. The distinction is critical. In one scenario, the Church, as an institution is a protagonist, a creator and participant in the construction of peace. In the other scenario, the Church is a figurehead, a prop.
To most observers, the Church seems to be more of the latter: a symbolic actor that provides the negotiators with enough political capital to push the process forward and gain the initial trust of the populace while the process consolidates.
Read the full whitepaper here.“I think I need to be frank,” Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez told El Faro. “The question is: as the Church, are we legitimizing [the truce] or are we doing something more?”
Some of the challenges the Catholic church is feeling were evident in a statement released last Sunday. Dudley describes this latest pronouncement:
The rifts caused by Colindres' participation in the truce -- which was signed by El Salvador's two largest street gangs, the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 in March of last year -- are still playing out in this Central American nation of seven million people. On May 12, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, the collective body of the Church hierarchy, emitted a public statement questioning the truce.
"The truce has not produced any benefits for the honorable and hard-working population," the statement reads, adding that extortions and other gang-related criminal activities have not slowed.
Brokering a deal with what most Salvadorans believe are parasitic criminals who prey on the weakest in society was always going to come at a cost.
Navigating the issues of crime and punishment, sin and forgiveness, justice and rehabilitation, will always be a tricky thing for the Church. The Church must always side with the victims, but when is it appropriate to recognize some gang members as victims themselves? How does the Church promote the possibilities of redemption and rehabilitation?
(I'm good at the questions. Not so good at the answers.)