Interview with Steven Vigil on the Uneasy Truce Between Gangs in El Salvador

Homicide rates plummeted by an estimated 40 percent in El Salvador in 2012—a dramatic turn of events for a country that in 2011 had the second-highest homicide rates in the world. The decline followed a historic truce between the two largest street gangs there, MS-13 and Barrio 18, which will see its first anniversary this Saturday, March 9th.

For Steven Vigil, the truce and the drop in violence that followed demonstrate the need to explore new approaches to violence prevention, particularly in a region where the mano dura approach—cracking down on criminal gangs with a hard fist—prevails.

“I have worked in UN peacekeeping on and off for the last 12 years in postconflict settings, and I think it’s key to look at El Salvador and Guatemala in relation to an incomplete peace process following the end of the wars there,” said Vigil in an interview with the Global Observatory. “Throw in the mix of noncoordination between the US government and the governments in the region…I think that left the door wide open for a different type of violence to take root.”

Mr. Vigil is the co-chair of the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGSPPES), a multidisciplinary coalition of individuals and groups working in Salvadoran diaspora communities in the United States. In July last year, TAGSPPES visited El Salvador at the invitation of the truce facilitators, the leadership of the participating gangs, and the Salvadoran government to assess the viability of the truce [pdf].

Reflecting on his meetings with government ministers, grassroots NGOs, and prisoners in El Salvador, “everybody pretty much said that mano dura has been a failure,” Mr. Vigil told the Global Observatory. “Since it was instituted, the idea was to crackdown on gangs and on violence. And the opposite has happened: the violence has increased, and the gangs have become much better organized.”

While skepticism persists in El Salvador about how the truce came about and whether it will last, Mr. Vigil acknowledged that over the past year, people have become more open to the idea of what the truce could bring.

In terms of next steps, Mr. Vigil highlighted the need for investments at the community level, “so that people can have the opportunities that could lead them out of poverty.” Highlighting the need to distinguish between well-financed, organized criminal gangs involved in narcotrafficking and street gangs from the barrios, Mr. Vigil identified other changes taking place in El Salvador since the truce was brokered: “Now there is more of a human face on the gang members, and people are starting to talk about prevention, intervention, and reintegration programs that people were not open to speaking about a year ago.”

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, Associate Editor at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Marie O’Reilly: I’m here today with Steve Vigil to talk about the truce in El Salvador. At the end of January this year the first peace zone was established in El Salvador, launching the second phase of a historic truce between the two largest criminal gangs there, Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Barrio Dieciocho (or 18th Street). The truce itself was negotiated in March 2012, so it’s now 11-months old. Steve, to begin with, I wonder if you could tell us about the origins of these two gangs, which I believe started in the streets of Los Angeles, California.

Steven Vigil: Yes, certainly. It’s very common for these two gangs to be mistaken as El Salvadoran gangs; they actually began in Los Angeles.

18th Street is an older gang whose origins date back to the ’40s or ’50s within the Chicano Mexican-American community in Los Angeles. So it’s one of the older generational gangs that has been in existence for a long time. In the ’80s they began accepting Central American immigrants into their gang because, for one, a lot of them were moving into their neighborhoods and as an effort to strengthen their numbers against some of their rivals within Los Angeles.

MS-13 began, I believe, in the late ’70s. It was started by Salvadoran refugees who had come up escaping the war. And initially it was not started as a gang–they were the Mara Salvatrucha stoners; they started as a heavy metal clique in Hollywood. After the interactions they had with the police and then with the juvenile system, they began transforming into what was considered a traditional cholo gang from Los Angeles and they began to have rivalries with some of the other gangs in the area, including 18th Street.

MO: How did they end up in El Salvador?

SV: After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, California started deporting criminal aliens, and this actually became a federal policy in 1996. It’s important to note that in 1992, that was when the peace accords came through ending the war in El Salvador, and El Salvador was in a pretty fragile state at that point. And in 1996, El Salvador started receiving thousands of gang members from California—not just El Salvador but different parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras were affected by this.

It happened at a time when people were unaware of who the gangs were and what the potential was for violence or for the gangs themselves to take root in the country. And also at a time when you had a large number of young people that either did not have their parents—were orphaned through the war—or whose parents were not around because they had emigrated to the United States for work. So it was an unfortunate time for this to take place for El Salvador.

MO: You had experience working on interventions with some of the gang members when they were in the United States, and you then joined a delegation that visited El Salvador last July 2012 to assess the viability of the truce reached in March last year. Who invited you to El Salvador, and what did you find? How sustainable is the truce today?

SV: I started 22 years ago working in communities affected by gang violence. I worked in California and in the Washington DC area with Salvadoran diaspora communities, so I had the opportunity to work with some of these communities back then. I was with an organization called Barrios Unidos out of Santa Cruz, California. When people started getting deported, we were one of the few groups saying that this was not an answer to the gang violence problem in our country, and, in fact, it was going to do much to spread that violence to Latin America and to elsewhere in the country. Unfortunately we were proven right.

As to being invited to El Salvador, we were initially invited by the imprisoned gangs themselves, who were conscious that there had been previous attempts to have truces in El Salvador before, and that when they didn’t work out some of the people involved were killed or disappeared. The gang leaders facilitated an introduction to Monsignor Colindres, who is one of the facilitators in El Salvador. And then eventually we received a great deal of support from the Salvadoran government.

We visited seven prisons and we met with the leadership from both gangs in the prisons that we visited, as well as the minister of justice and public security, his vice minister, director general of police, director general for prisons, NGOs, and international organizations.

On the part of the gangs themselves, we found a pretty firm commitment to the process. The leadership, and indeed the members that we had the opportunity to speak with in the prisons, spoke very clearly about what they wanted—not just for themselves but for their communities. They wanted to see an end to the violence and they wanted to see a future for their families, as well as for the greater Salvadoran society.

Amongst the different actors we met with from the government, INGOs, and NGOs, the message wasn’t necessarily as clear in terms of where they stood in support of or against the truce. There was certainly a lot of skepticism in July (when we went there) from certain quarters, which I think is still somewhat the case. But as the truce has continued, I think people are open to the idea of what it could potentially bring.

MO: But this skepticism that you talk of is in spite of this dramatic reduction in violence—who is opposed to the truce, and why are they so skeptical? What are the complaints that are out there about the way the truce came about?

SV: I think the primary complaint is that the truce did not come about in a very transparent and open manner. I think people thought that there wasn’t a clear message coming from the government and the facilitators of the truce about what brought it about.

I also think that the security industry in Central America has grown exponentially in the last 10-15 years, so there’s some pretty strong economic interest to not see this sort of thing succeed. And that’s really unfortunate. I think that when you have situations where so much emphasis is put on security, it can often get in the way of some of the real progress you need to make so that a society can move past the cycle of violence that has engulfed it.

Something that a lot of the people we spoke with in El Salvador said was, while they thought the truce was a good thing, the concern was that the general Salvadoran society was going to be the hardest to convince about the truce, because those are the people that have the direct experience with actual gangs. We’re talking about people who live in the neighborhoods that see the violence and are victims of the violence on a daily basis. One thing that has changed in the last 11 months is that now there is more of a human face on the gang members, and people are starting to talk about prevention and intervention and reintegration programs that people were not open to speaking about a year ago.

MO: Given your work in this area in multiple settings, what are your thoughts on the mano dura approach that seeks to crack down on criminal gangs? Do you think that this really failed in El Salvador, and what are the prospects for this approach elsewhere given the challenges that organized criminal gangs continue to pose, particularly in that region?

SV: One of the things that came across very clearly in our discussions with people in El Salvador—from the minister of justice himself to grassroots NGOs working in the communities, to the prison leaders, to clergy—everybody pretty much said that mano dura has been a failure. The idea was to crackdown on gangs and on violence. And the opposite has happened: the violence has increased, and the gangs have become much better organized. I think it’s clear from the people themselves in El Salvador that they don’t feel that it’s been a success.

MO: So what approach does work, do you think? What are the next steps? And what, in general, do you think should be the approach being taken when talking about criminal gangs?

SV: I think there needs to be a distinction between the organized criminal gangs such as the narcotraffickers, that sort of crime that’s at a higher level and much better organized and financed. There have been some statements about the [US] Treasury Department making MS-13 a transnational gang. I think that’s promoting a misunderstanding that these street gangs are at the same level as these much better organized and much better financed criminal organizations. That’s not to say that the street gangs can’t get involved in those activities, but I think it’s important to note that, for the most part, the street gangs are very poor, unemployed, usually uneducated young people who live in barrios, and most of the violence that they’re perpetuating is against themselves and against people like them in their own communities.

You really have to have some investment at the community level so that people can actually have the opportunities that could lead them out of poverty. One of the problems in the region is high unemployment and high underemployment. I think the issue of inequality is very important—Central America is one of the areas with the highest rates of inequality in the world. People don’t, by and large, have the opportunities to raise themselves up out of poverty, and the structures aren’t there to allow them to do so. So it’s left the door wide open for this rise in violence and criminality that we’ve seen in the last 10–15 years in the region.

MO: Talking about poverty and how a lot of the street gangs are quite young, I wonder if you could link that to the changing landscape of violence that we’re seeing on an international level. Do you see any lessons from El Salvador for elsewhere?

SV: I have worked in UN peacekeeping on and off for the last 12 years in postconflict settings, and I think it’s key to look at El Salvador and Guatemala in relation to an incomplete peace process following the end of the wars there. One of the key things that did not happen was an actual reconciliation process—not just reconciliation between the conflicting parties but also reconciliation between the parties and society themselves. Throw in the mix of noncoordination between the US government and the governments in the region in terms of the deportation policy, especially relating to criminal deportees in the initial phases—I think that left the door wide open for a different type of violence to take root.

That’s a danger that we need to take into account when we’re looking at a lot of our post-conflict countries, because they are experiencing the same sort of thing. You’ve got a youth bulge that’s coming up, which tends to be for the most part under- or uneducated, with limited opportunities for employment and education, and many of whom have fought in the conflicts that they are coming from. I think you’re looking at people fighting for the basic levels of survival. And different criminal groups, whether organized or not, are capitalizing on this. That needs to be something that humanitarians and development professionals take into account as they’re moving forward to the next generation.

MO: Thanks so much for sharing your insights with us, Steve.

SV: Thank you very much for the opportunity.