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Mediating criminal violence: Lessons from the gang truce in El Salvador

Jul 10, 2013

from the research report by Teresa Whitfield:

During the 1980s El Salvador suffered a bitterly contested civil war. Negotiations mediated by the United Nations concluded in a peace agreement in 1992 and set the course for the, largely smooth, assimilation of former guerrillas in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) into Salvadoran political life. Post-war, violence perpetrated by illegal armed groups escalated as a result of the involvement of gangs and a range of other criminal actors, in parallel to similar crises of security in Guatemala and Honduras. Honduras and El Salvador were subsequently placed first and second in the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s global index of homicide with 92 and 69 homicides per 100,000 respectively in 2011.

In a shift from previous policies which had emphasized the robust suppression of violent crime, in March 2012 facilitators answerable to the Salvadoran government mediated a controversial truce between the country’s two main gangs. The truce brought about a dramatic reduction in the country’s homicide rate whilst raising multiple questions about the risks and benefits of direct engagement with criminal actors.

This paper has been written while the outcomes of the gang truce in El Salvador are still unfolding. It suggests that the truce has been imperfectly managed and remains fragile, but is also a considerable achievement. Lessons that may be derived from it are limited by the specific characteristics and circumstances of the Salvadoran gangs. Yet, they merit consideration for several reasons. The Salvadoran truce, and the arrival in Mexico of a government determined to address the country’s spiraling violence, much of which is exacerbated by competition for the gains of the illicit economy and drug trade, have placed new emphasis on alternative paths to pacification. More broadly, counter-narcotics policies that for decades have been framed as a “war on drugs” are being challenged, most recently in a groundbreaking report by the Organization of American States (OAS) that specifically addresses – among other issues – “the violence and suffering associated with the drug problem” in the Americas.

Elsewhere, national and international actors are struggling to craft and implement responses to organised violence and crime in situations in which criminal activities have developed as a result of unresolved conflict grievances (in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Kosovo, for example), or where they seek to shape electoral politics (in Kenya, Jamaica and the Solomon Islands), or where they hide behind grievances which are fuelling armed conflict (in Colombia, Mali and Myanmar to name but three examples). They, too, can benefit from the lessons and questions that emerge from the Salvadoran experience.

Download the full paper.

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