An estimated 500 lives have been saved since March in a peace process launched by imprisoned Salvadoran gang members and the country's Catholic church. The incarcerated members of Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang are urgently asking that voices of civil society speak on behalf of the process and their protection.
A Los Angeles press conference is planned for May 28, at which Catholic church authorities are expected to announce a peace-keeping committee and ask that the fragile truce be given a chance to proceed where all other efforts have failed. The principal outsider mediator in El Salvador is Raul Mijango, a former FMLN commandante and member of the post-war legislature. Mijango was a key participant in the talks which ended the civil war involving the United States in 1992.
Homies Unidos, an LA-based gang peace project serving Central American immigrant youth, has been asked for assistance in long-distance messages from the imprisoned Salvadorans.
The irony is that Alex Sanchez, co-founder of Homies Unidos in Los Angeles and a former MS member, is prohibited from offering mediation while he is awaiting trial since an arrest in 2009. Federal bail guidelines prohibit Sanchez from talking with MS members except in the offices of his LA-based defense lawyer, Amy Jacks. By a peculiar exemption, Sanchez apparently is able to hear from 18th Street members, however.
Sanchez is a pioneer of so-called gang intervention programs, in which former gang members participate in mediating gang truces, and develop services and exit strategies for gang members who want to end the violence and transition to more positive lives. The FBI and law enforcement, including the Los Angeles police and sheriffs’ departments, have been suspicious historically that gang intervention work is a “front” for ongoing criminal activities. Instead, the FBI, LAPD, and Salvadoran police have chosen suppression, criminal indictments, and permanent incarceration approaches.
Those hardline policies have changed somewhat at the LAPD in recent years, and the present Salvadoran crisis raises the policy question of whether individuals like Sanchez should be permitted to apply their unique interventionist skills to preserve the peace.
Reached in LA, Sanchez said he was happy to receive news of the truce by phone from El Salvador, “because when the phone rang I was expecting a fire or something.” The most recent of several fires in Central American prisons killed 361 in Honduras in February. Hostile police, prison overcrowding, frayed electrical wires and flammable blankets have been factors in several prison fires claiming several hundred lives in recent years.
“It’s 2012, the time of epiphany”, an excited Sanchez declared. “Public opinion down there right now is wait-and-see,” because previous truces have evaporated and paramilitary death squads are widespread. “But if this truce goes a bit longer, people will push the government to do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Sanchez predicted.
According to Mijango and Salvadoran media accounts, homicide rates in El Salvador fell from 14 per day to five, starting in March. Over a fifty-day period that would mean 450 individuals not killed. The Guardian reported April 15 that on Saturday, April 14, no one was murdered in El Salvador for the first time in nearly three years. The homicide rate in El Salvador in 2010 was 66 per 100,000, over triple that of Mexico.
Politicians and law enforcement are backed by public majorities in maintaining their hardline enforcement policies (known as mano dura in Central America). But those policies have come under criticism in recent months by a peace movement led by poet Javier Sicilia in Mexico, and the right-wing president of Guatemala, among many others.
In response to the current process, Salvadoran authorities have offered modest concessions, like allowing gang leaders into the general prison population and permitting family visitations.
To Sanchez, the key is genuine repentence among gang members combined with specific measures towards rehabilitation, addiction and mental health treatment, and internal agreements reached by the gang members with assistance from mediators. Sanchez says they need “protocols” to lessen and terminate violence, including dispute mechanisms and an ombudsperson. He points to a recent Salvadoran gang decree that schools become safe zones as one example. Other specific measures might include medical treatment for homies with HIV, orthopedic shoes for overweight diabetics, and seeds for planting vegetable gardens in the prisons. “Their main concern,”Sanchez says, “is that the homies outside need to have their needs addressed because they are the ones sustaining the truce.”
Salvadorans and reform advocates are calling on Los Angeles experts and authorities to weigh in, since LA is the longtime vortex of immigrants, war refugees and deportations, both from and to Central America. In fact, the notorious Salvadoran gang culture was formed in Los Angeles, not in El Salvador, among exiled children of the civil war, las frutas de la guerra.
LA City police and gang intervention officials are known to have links with the FBI and Salvadoran police and immigration authorities. Other local experts have funds to advise the US AID, which could fund programs for rehabilitation. Programs like Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Homeboy Industries are closely watched as models by El Salvadorans. Advocates like Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and the poet Luis Rodriguez, himself a former gang-banger, have followed the Salvadoran situation supportively for years.
The next Salvadoran presidential election is scheduled for early 2014. The FMLN is supporting the truce while others watch and hope.