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.
Armed with an arsenal of weapons like assault 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, they did 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.
On January 16, two members of the Coalition, Steve Vigil and Luis Cardona, were present in Washington DC in to discuss and screen a 20-minute film on the Salvadorian gang truce. Luis Cardona is former gang member who turned his life around after being shot five times and overcoming several stints in prison. Luis currently works as a youth violence prevention coordinator. Steve Vigil has over 20 years experience working in conflict mitigation with communities that have been torn apart by gang violence.
During their trip in El Salvador, the two men found 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 two coalition members reported to a room filled to capacity, 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 of the gang leaders in the film. “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.”
As the poignant film ended, and the event turned into a conversation with the audience, one young woman sheepishly raised her hand and asked about sustainability of the truce. “Even as the homicide rates continue to decrease, the number of arrests has skyrocketed,” she said. “In essence,” she added, “the government is trying to take credit for the reduction in crime by saying violence is down because we have arrested more people. This poses a direct threat to the truce because it shows that even if the gang members do the right thing, they will nevertheless be punished.”
The rest of the audience had been singing the praises of the peace agreement, this audience member reminded us that any peace, especially at its infancy, is extremely fragile and can be easily undone by careless actions.
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. Hopefully, this peace won’t succumb to the actions of a zealous few who never cared about the peace agreement and the people who brokered it.