The Common Good
November 2012

From 'Iron Fist' to Hand of Peace

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | November 2012

Gangs in El Salvador call a truce from behind prison walls.

IN THE TRAGIC, often-hopeless world of gang violence, this year’s truce between two notorious gangs in El Salvador offers reasons for hope and a breakthrough opportunity for change.

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Beginning in March, leaders of the infamous gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 called a truce from behind prison walls. The agreement was mediated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres, the Catholic chaplain for the Salvadoran police and military, and Raúl Mijango, a former legislator and, before that, military commander in the FMLN, the onetime guerrilla movement that is now the country’s elected ruling party.

The truce, which was still in effect at press time, immediately reduced violence in El Salvador, which has been among the world’s most deadly countries in recent years. Since early April, said President Mauricio Funes in late August, the murder rate has gone down to around five per day, a decrease of more than 60 percent from the 13.5 per day average of January and February.

The gang violence that has plagued El Salvador and other Central American countries in recent years is an import, brought by youth deported from the United States. MS-13 and Barrio 18 both originated on the streets of Los Angeles—ironically, built by young people whose families were refugees fleeing the U.S.-backed violence of Central American civil wars and death squads in the 1980s.

But just as violence can be moved across national borders, peace can be as well.

In July, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador, a group of U.S. community workers with gang intervention expertise, sent an 11-member delegation to assess the truce and consult with their Salvadoran counterparts on ways to support it.

The delegation met with gang members in some of El Salvador’s most disreputable prisons, including prisons holding women and their children. The Salvadoran government’s previous mano dura (“iron fist”) strategy locked people up simply for displaying gang-like tattoos or clothing, leading to over-capacity prisons with some of the worst living conditions imaginable.

Despite the threatening public image of the Central American gang member, the advisory group found the prisons filled with young people seeking peace. “We expected to find the devil, but we found God instead,” said Dr. Ricardo Carrillo, who visited the prisons with the advisory group.

There have already been reported violations of the truce, and officials are split about its true effectiveness. But whether the truce holds or not, it’s an important model for Central America—and for the U.S.: Multi-level commitment by different sectors of society is necessary to end gang violence and address the factors that lead to gang involvement in the first place. In El Salvador, the gangs, the church, politicians, the legal system, and gang intervention groups all played a role in brokering and securing the peace.

To support the Salvadoran gang peace process, these stakeholders need to continue their commitment by establishing programs and policies for rehabilitation, education, vocational training, and job development. The deeper movement of the accord points toward a national healing and reconciliation process for a country deeply wounded by several generations of violence and war.

“The homies are seeking reconciliation for what they’ve done wrong. We forgive them, but they also have to forgive themselves,” Luis Cardona, a member of the Transnational Advisory Group, told Sojourners. “The violence has its roots in war. And unless El Salvador forgives itself and forgives the United States, all other reconciliation efforts are pointless.”

The hope the truce offers has implications for all of us seeking more whole, perhaps more holy, societies. These are the things that make for peace.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos manages social media for the United Church of Canada and was a founding member of D.C. Barrios Unidos, a gang intervention group.

Image: MS-13 gang member, ES James /

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