By Efren Lemus @efrenlemus from San Salvador
When Raúl Martínez arrived at Redondel Nicaragua, a traffic circle north of El Salvador’s capital, more than 800 wooden crosses had been pounded into the lawn, surrounding a statue of César Augusto Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary.
Among the wooden crosses there were two placards with a message for the public safety authorities: “895 of us have died in August. How many more of us must there be before you do something?”
Those who placed the crosses and placards protesting the increased rate of homicides in El Salvador were mistaken. There hadn’t been 895 victims of violence. According to the latest report from the Institute of Forensic Medicine,
the figure was 911 Salvadorans murdered in August, a figure that gives this month a record for violent deaths during this century. On average, 29 homicides each day. There was one murder every hour.
The statistics – and the news – about the violence in El Salvador were so strong and overwhelming that many communities and many Salvadorans have turned silence into a protective shield in reaction to the fear.
Raúl is one of them. He works for the city government in San Salvador and his daily work consists of mowing the lawn, pruning trees and planting flowers in public places in the capital city. On the morning of Tuesday, September First, nevertheless, the mission given to him and other workers was to go remove the wooden crosses and the green placards with the white letters.
-Did it take you long to remove the crosses?
-No, they were quickly removed.
-And who put them there?
-That I don’t know, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you. That’s what I’ve said to my close friends. That’s how the situation is and it’s best not to talk… It’s best to avoid problems.
What Raúl calls “the situation” is in fact a chain of events that turned August into the most violent month so far during this century.
From gang members to terrorists
During the four days prior to the beginning of the month, Manuel Sales, Mauricio Renderos, Juan Cruz, Elías Meléndez and another unidentified person were murdered. They all had worked driving buses or microbuses and, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, the crimes had been ordered by the Revolutionary faction from
Barrio 18, one of the principal gangs in the country, with the intention of boycotting the public transportation service.
The gang accomplished its objective. Between 27 July and August First, several public transportation routes went on strike as a result of the death threats against the bus drivers.
While the buses were safely kept on the premises of the transportation cooperatives, the sidewalks along the nation’s capital were crowded with students, vendors and employees who needed transportation to get home or to go work.
The threat of boycotting public transportation remained latent toward the second week of August, following vacations during celebrations in the nation’s capital.
The Prosecutor’s Office then became proactive and ordered the arrest of 308 gang members, whom it accused of the felony of “ aggravated terrorist organization.” Days later, the Chamber for Constitutional Matters of the Supreme Court of Justice confirmed the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Law and rendered the opinion that the gangs are organizations against whom that law may be applied because they control territories and exercise practices that instill terror in the population.
Nevertheless, neither the arrest of 308 gang members nor the state’s discourse about enforcing severe laws against the gangs prevented an increase in homicides during August.
The first sign of an escalation in the violence became apparent on August 16th when the police reported a confrontation with gang members in the canton of Panchimalco, south of the capital. After the shootout, the deceased bodies of five young people were found inside a small dwelling with walls of sheet metal.
That day ended with 40 homicides and many Salvadorans believed it was going to be the most violent month of the year, but they were mistaken.
On Monday, August 17 th, the police reported 42 murders and, on their front pages, some newspapers were saying that indeed this was “the most violent month of the century,” but they too didn’t have it right.
According to the report from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, August 23 rd was the worst day: on that Wednesday there were 52 homicides, one murder every half hour.
The maelstrom following the truce with the gangs
When was it that maelstrom that raised the daily average for homicides from 14 to more than 40 began?
Luis Enrique Amaya, international consultant and researcher in matters of citizens’ safety, is of the opinion that its cause relates to the fact that “ the truce with the gangs was handled very poorly at the start, and especially, at its termination. The way in which the truce was terminated may have invited, in great measure, conditions for having what we now have.”
The truce consisted of negotiations between the gangs and the government of former President Mauricio Funes, conducted in March of 2012. During this process, the gangs agreed to a reduction in homicides in exchange for having 30 of its leaders transferred from the maximum-security prison to other jails with less stringent controls.
The immediate effect of the truce was a drop in homicides: from a daily average of 11.9 it fell down to 6.8.
Amaya is coauthor of the study “The truce among gangs as a form of intervention over violence,” where he analyses facts between January of 2010 and July of 2014 and estimates that
the truce prevented 5,501 murders.
“This is probably the most successful truce in the entire western hemisphere, there is no record of a truce this successful in lowering the number of homicides or as prolonged in its duration,” says Amaya.
According to the study, the drastic reduction in homicides is the result of the negotiations between the gangs and the government because other variables that have an influence on there being more or less crime (being marginalized, poor and unemployed) were kept stable.
In comparing the processes in truces with gangs that have taken place in other countries such as the United States, Jamaica, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago, Amaya says that after a reduction in homicides, “ a boomerang effect” takes place that causes homicide figures to revert back to the original rates and, in some cases, it causes the rates to increase.
“What we were predicting with the information up until June of 2014 is what I believe we are seeing now,” says Amaya.
The government of Mauricio Funes never gave recognition to the negotiations with the gangs, even though it attributed to itself the reduction in homicides. Afterwards, with the change of government, there was also a change in policy for public safety.
In February of 2015, the cabinet presided over by
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén rejected any dialogue with the gangs as a way of solving the problem of the homicides, ordered the transfer of the gang leaders to the jails and announced that he was placing his bets on programs such as the Community Police for recovering territories controlled by the criminal gangs.
For Amaya, one of the mistakes made by the authorities was the abrupt closing down of the channel of communication with the gangs. “The gangs have been aided in generating a more focused hatred toward the State. The State, in the way in which it broke the truce, may have contributed to generating a discontent that in some way ends up facilitating an understanding among the gangs that directs them against the State.”
That explains, for example, the increase in the murder of police officers, members of the military and prison guards.
Is there some way of avoiding a repetition of the average of almost 30 homicides per day during the month of August? Amaya believes that a possible solution would be to resume the dialogue, but not so openly because of the issue of the questioned legitimacy of the government.
“ The power of the gangs is based on their community strongholds. I see it as paradoxical that this is not understood by former guerrilla fighters (some of whom are now in the Government).
Nevertheless, that possibility seems remote. The official discourse is that most of the 911 Salvadorans murdered during August were gang members and, therefore, terrorists.
“I would say that more than 85 percent of us who are observing this believe that they are members of gang-like structures,” said Defense Minister David Munguía Payés, the architect of the truce with the gangs in 2012.
“If the percentage of deaths in the month of August were mostly among terrorists that is beneficial for the country,” wrote Legislative Assembly President
Guillermo Gallegos in his Twitter account.
Lea en español:
Agosto, el mes más sangriento de la década en El Salvador.