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March 25, 2014

Criminal Gangs in El Salvador Return to War Path After Two-Year Truce

by Zlatica Hoke

Two years ago, two of the most violent gangs in El Salvador -- Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 -- signed a truce. But as fighting between the two criminal groups has been on the rise in recent months, so has the death toll.  Fears are starting to grow of a renewed gang war in one of Latin America's most dangerous countries.
 
Majucla is one of the poorest and also one of the most violent communities in El Salvador. Located just north of the capital, San Salvador, Majucla is controlled by the infamous gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13. Shootings are frequent in the dirt road neighborhood, and no one is safe.
 
The owner of a local bus line, Rigoberto Hernandez, said businesses have to pay to be spared.
 
“It’s very dangerous because we have to work from 4:00 AM, and if somebody doesn’t like you, they can kill you at that time. As we say here, you have to pay to survive,” said Hernandez.
 
During the mid-1990s, fighting between Mara Salvatrucha and the rival Barrio 18 gang often killed up to 16 people a day. Between 2003 and 2009, hardline governments filled El Salvador's prisons with gang members without any impact on violent crime. Then, in March 2012, a left-wing government secretly negotiated a peace deal between the two groups, and the city's murder rate was almost cut in half. 
 
The gangs created violence-free sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers, like bakeries, where former gang members could find jobs.
 
However, police now say that since January, the murder rate has increased, reaching as many as nine homicides per day.
 
Police inspector Perez-Reyes would not confirm that the government had a role in the truce, but said it appears the gangs are back at war.
 
“We have nothing to do with the truce. Apparently it’s an agreement between the gangs. But given the rise in homicides, we think the truce is over,” said Perez-Reyes.
 
Residents in the capital said that even when the murder rate was down, racketeering and other crimes continued. Bus drivers still have to pay gangs a so-called “protection tax”, or renta.
 
Adam Blackwell, security chief for the Organization of American States, said a temporary truce is not enough to permanently rid El Salvador and other Latin American countries of the scourge of gang crime. 
 
“What happened was a truce. A truce is when at a moment in time there is a cease-fire between fighters in a war. What follows is peace and peace is always more complicated and always takes more time. That’s what we are trying to build,” said Blackwell.
 
Analysts said gang members need an alternative to street life, and rehabilitation programs can be complex and costly.
 
Hopes are high that the incoming government of leftist President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren will be able to curb gang violence and start building such programs.  He takes office in June.