Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Murders surge -- is gang truce breaking down?

Over the past two weeks, the number of daily murders in El Salvador has surged, prompting many to question whether the truce has collapsed, how the government should respond, and igniting fears of a return to the pre-truce levels of violence in the country.   

From an article in the GlobalPost:

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador has seen a burst of violence, with 103 homicides this week, the government said on Friday, as a year-long truce between the country's violent gangs appeared to be crumbling.

The uptick in murders in the Central American nation echoes killing rates before the March 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and rival Barrio 18.

"We said last year that the truce was fragile and that it could fracture in any moment. Time has proven us right," Miguel Fortin, Director of the Supreme Court's Institute of Legal Medicine (IML) told local media.
There has been little analysis published of the murders themselves or the victims.   So we don't know whether increasing numbers relate to a battle between gangs, to control of drug-trafficking routes, to campaigns of extortion, or to a wide assortment of random causes.

In a long interview in El Faro, truce mediator Raul Mijango asserted that the truce was still in effect, but he blamed the surge in killings on the public's antipathy to the truce, to a media campaign against the truce, to changing policies of the new Minister of Public Security, and to greater restrictions on the national gang leaders in prison.

Mijango's remarks are not going down well in the country.  From InsightCrime:
On July 4, Mijango said that he believed homicide levels would drop within 72 hours, and indicated that certain government measures, including restrictions put on imprisoned gang members under the country's new Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, may be linked to the spate of killings. According to Mijango, these restriction led to the deaths of seven prisoners in three weeks,reported La Prensa Grafica
The comments provoked several legislators to announce their intention to demand prosecutors launch an investigation into Mijango's activities. One official commented that Mijango appeared to possess information about the situation that was unavailable to anyone else. Congressman Guillermo Gallegos of the GANA party said, "A person who has knowledge, control, and knows how the gangs act, and says that in 72 hours homicides may drop is also in some way an accomplice." Mijango refuted the claims, saying the homicides were not part of a plan to blackmail the government.
InsightCrime points out that, if the rise in homicides represents a response to government policies, it is an example of extortion at a national scale:
More worryingly, if, as Mijango suggests, the recent spate of homicides is not random but responsive, this could be taken as a sign that the gangs are willing to use the murder rate as a tool to gain leverage -- if their demands are met, the murder rate stays down; if they are not, it quickly rises. If this is the case, then it sets a dangerous precedent as it essentially allows the gangs to extract concessions from the government through the threat of a return to violence. 
The recent surge in the murder rate has also come into play in El Salvador's contentious presidential election campaign.    During the first year of the gang truce,   it was impressive to see how skillfully the mediators had acted to avoid the truce becoming a political issue.    An example was the careful cultivation of mayors in the so called "violence free" cities.   Included were equal numbers of towns ruled by mayors from ARENA and the FMLN as well as towns with mayors from the smaller parties.   None of the parties developed or expressed a coherent position for or against the truce.

Today, however,  ARENA's presidential candidate Norman Quijano has a hard hitting campaign blaming the FMLN for crime and violence, denouncing the truce, and pledging to "recover" El Salvador.   President Funes shot back that Quijano was engaged in a cynical plan to oppose the truce now for political reasons but would negotiate with the gangs after the election.   Meanwhile Tony Saca expressed that he favored more soldiers and police in the streets, and that the type of truce he favored was one between the gangs and the hard-working honest people of the country -- not a truce among the gangs themselves.

The situation is worrying, and politicians in an election year are unlikely to make the situation better.

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