While civil charges involving illicit enrichment have recently moved forward against former Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes, he might also be in the cross-hairs of the country's new attorney general for his role in the country's 2012 gang truce, which came into being four years ago this month. Douglas Meléndez has promised to carry out a “serious investigation.” Such an investigation would go a long way towards clarifying the events of the last four years. It is the only way that the Salvadoran people and the international community are going to begin to regain confidence in the country’s political officials and security ministers.
As a result of the truce, violent confrontations between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18 Street gangs, and between the gangs and the state, dropped dramatically. Almost overnight, the country’s daily homicide average dropped from approximately fourteen deaths to five. The Salvadoran state and society and the international community moved to support the truce and look for ways to transform it into a meaningful peace. Unfortunately, the truce collapsed in late 2013-2014 in spectacular fashion.
Violence spiraled out of control almost immediately, leaving El Salvador with the dubious honor of capturing the title of world’s most dangerous country. In 2015, the small Central American state saw its homicide rate surpass 100 per 100,000. The state’s security institutions emerged weaker and less professional. While the use of heavy-handed tactics is nothing new, highly credible reports indicate that police are now engaged in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members and witnesses. The gangs, on the other hand, appear stronger and more violent than they had been prior to the truce. They have allegedly murdered dozens of off-duty officers and set off two car bombs since the end of the truce.
At the time of the truce, it seemed worthy of support. Given the strength of the gangs, the limited commitment of some of its members and the buyers’ remorse of others who felt that they had no choice but to join, and the weakness of the Salvadoran state, some sort of truce and dialogue made sense. It was not a peace agreement, but a sort-of cease-fire during which the government could help facilitate the exit from gangs for those that wanted out. Theoretically at least, the truce could have also provided the government with an opportunity to strengthen its political, social, and economic institutions with a view to implementing policies to discourage new gang members and deal with those who remained.
In return for drawing down their guns, some senior gang leaders were shuffled from their prison cells to more comfortable digs, and given other perks. Some observers at the time worried that these moves, along with increased "family" visits, were too high a price to pay. But negotiations always involve some give and take on both sides. Given the tremendous power of the gangs in 2012, these were not unreasonable givebacks. For my own part, however, the assumption was that government officials and the mediators involved were negotiating in good faith. At the very least, it was reasonable to assume that they were on top of the situation, and whatever had been negotiated was not being allowed to violate the spirit of the truce.
Recently, however, there have been questions raised about whether gang leaders were given more than that—cell phones, strippers, cash and new weapons—and whether there was sufficient oversight of implementation of the truce. At the same time, concerns have been voiced that in return for these accoutrements and their support of the truce, gang members delivered votes to elected officials. Needless to say, this was not what was generally understood to be at stake in the bargain.
Over the course of the nearly two years in which the truce held together, unsubstantiated rumors spread that seemed designed to undermine the mediators’ efforts. There were rumors that gang members had set up training camps in the countryside in order to improve their ability to carry out criminal enterprises. From what I can tell, these rumors have no basis in actual fact. There were rumors of mass graves dotting the countryside that included people executed by the gangs during the truce. However, this also has remained a rumor as the only mass grave that really made the news was smaller than thought and included mostly remains from people who had been dead prior to the truce going into effect.
Minister of Public Security and Justice David Munguía Payés, former FMLN rebel and congressman Raúl Mijango, and Bishop Fabio Colindres were the truce’s architects. Even though Munguia Payes was one of the key players, the Funes administration stuck to its story that it was just providing "logistical" support to the truce negotiators or that the truce was simply between the two gangs; the truce was not a government initiative. Funes’ commitment to plausible deniability was not credible and, worse, undermined any good faith efforts that existed to transform the truce into a peace agreement of sorts. It was impossible for many Salvadorans and those from the international community to support a government-involved truce with the gangs when the government denied its role. Had Funes publicly supported the truce and admitted the government’s involvement, it is possible that the domestic and foreign support needed to move the truce to a more comprehensive agreement would have been more forthcoming.
The role of the United States in all this is also not above reproach. The US position throughout was notable for its lack of support for the truce. To be sure, Washington did not need to come out publicly in support of the truce, let alone fund it directly. Still, there were steps that the United States could have taken "outside" of the truce in order support the process. Travel warnings issued by the State Department in 2013 for El Salvador were posted during a period of significant decreases in the country’s homicide rate. The timing appeared designed to undermine the truce.
Given Funes' recent incomprehensible statements that his government had nothing to do with the truce and the recent corruption allegations against him and the lack of trust that many today have in Munguía Payés who has since been linked to weapons trafficking, perhaps US officials were on to something. The country’s gang leaders could not be trusted. Worse, the government’s truce facilitators could not be trusted. If that is the case, a serious investigation by the new attorney general is necessary. Such an investigation would be controversial. The former Minister of Public Security and Justice, Munguia Payés, is now Minister of Defense under President Sánchez Cerén. All the same, it should proceed accordingly.
The recent appointment of El Salvador’s new attorney general provides the Salvadoran people with the opportunity to learn once and for all about the motivations of the protagonists (the government, mediators, and gang leaders themselves). We can better learn whether the truce was doomed from the start because it was a pact among thieves or whether its failure was a consequence of weak domestic and international support for what had the potential to be a major security improvement. No matter the outcome, a thorough investigation will go a long way towards building needed confidence in the country’s criminal justice and political systems.