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Salvadoran Gang Leaders Achieve a Measure of Redemption

February 1, 2013 ·

Last March, two rival gangs met in a Salvadoran prison to forge an unlikely truce.

Experts traveled to El Salvador to gain insight into how a truce between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 led to a marked decrease in violence.

In recent years, El Salvador, like many of its Latin American counterparts, has witnessed an explosion in violence. The contentious fighting between two of the country’s biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, is largely responsible for fueling much of the carnage.

Both of these gangs trace their roots to poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles where young, marginalized Latin American immigrants clustered together to form them. When the United States started deporting convicted felons to their native countries, many MS-13 and Barrio 18 members found themselves in countries they hardly knew, including El Salvador. Driven by fear of the unknown and an instinct for survival, they gravitated to the only piece of their past that still remained—the gangs. Today, approximately 20,000 MS-13 and Barrio 18 members populate the streets of El Salvador.

Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including assault-style rifles and grenades, and saddled with a lack of economic opportunity, these gang members proceeded to slaughter each other over arbitrarily designated chunks of territory. That is until last spring, when the gang leaders met in their dungeon-like prisons and decided to enact a truce.

The results of the truce have been nothing short of miraculous. Homicides in the country have decreased by 40 percent, kidnappings have been slashed in half, and extortions have fallen by 10 percent. Hardened gang members, who at times appear to don more ink than skin, accomplished in a matter of weeks what the government failed to do in the past decade—deliver a modicum of peace to El Salvador.

Inspired by the unprecedented events in El Salvador, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGPPES)—a coalition of experts in the fields of gang intervention, human rights, post conflict work, and economic development—traveled to the Central American country to better understand the roots of the largely unexpected peace agreement.

What the group found was that despite the strong animosity that existed between the gangs, the yearning for some sense of peaceful normality—the ability to take their kids to school without the fear of getting shot—was stronger.

The group also visited the prisons where some of the gang leaders who brokered the peace were held. The gang leaders, the coalition reported, were often troubled men who had experienced and done terrible things. Their families and friends had been vanquished by the gang war. Many of them had killed, kidnapped, and even tortured their rivals. To many onlookers, the gang leaders appeared devoid of any humanity, which is what made the peace agreement even more remarkable.

But they weren’t devoid of their humanity at all. Despite the darkness of their past and the horrid conditions of their prison cells, the gang leaders still held on to redeeming qualities that shone through their hardened exterior. They wanted a better life for their children and they wanted the opportunity to right some of their wrongs.

“I know I’ve done terrible things,” said one. “I know I’ve thrown my life away. I’m not asking for mercy. I’ll pay for my crimes. All I want is a better life for my children. That is why I agreed to the peace agreement. If I can secure a better future for them, then at least I’ll know my life was not a complete waste.”

Tupac Shakur, who coincidentally is one of the best-known “gangster” rappers, once wrote a short poem entitled, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. The poem is worth quoting at length:

Did you hear about the rose that grew / from a crack in the concrete? / Proving nature's law is wrong it / learned to walk without having feet. / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned to breathe fresh air. / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else ever cared. 

If a rose can grow from concrete, then surely peace can emerge from the depths of a dark Salvadorian prison. 

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at the institute for Policy Studies.


Javier Rojo
Former New Mexico Fellow