In El Salvador

Michael Busch

El Salvador, Central America’s smallest country, is fast becoming the most violent place in the Western Hemisphere. More than 2000 people have been killed so far this year, nearly 700 of them in June alone – a murder rate not seen since the civil war ended in 1992.

The slide into violence follows a period of relative peace. In May 2012, El Salvador’s two most powerful gangs (or maras), MS-13 and Barrio 18, publicly agreed to a truce negotiated by the government and religious leaders. Violent crime dropped dramatically. But the ceasefire was short-lived. It started showing signs of strain in 2013, and had collapsed entirely by early 2014.

It looks now as if the truce gave the maras time to reorganise themselves, stock up on arms and ammunition, and focus on their protection rackets. They didn’t stop killing people, either. Disappearances increased during the ceasefire, and mass graves have since been discovered.

But the truce wasn’t entirely hollow. Beyond the dramatic reduction in spectacular acts of violence, it showed that gang leaders see a sustainable peace as being in their interest, and that they have the power to guarantee, or spoil, a bargain. The gangs’ emphasis on effective social rehabilitation programmes reflected their concerns about the explosive growth of mara membership. Swelling ranks, combined with a never-ending, two-front war against rival gangs and the state, significantly strain the leaders' ability to control their footsoldiers, finance their operations and exercise power more broadly. The truce also led to conversations in the media – and international diplomatic circles – about El Salvador’s grim socioeconomic conditions, a recurring theme in public statements issued by gang leaders still looking to talk.

The maras have called for a new round of negotiations, but the government has shown little appetite for diplomacy. The president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is committed to meeting gang violence with state violence. Peace talks are off the table, he says, and 600 special forces troops are being trained to battle the gangs.

El Salvador desperately needs a new truce. It wouldn’t solve the country’s many problems, but it would provide relief from the avalanche of violence, and is the only possible escape from the bloody stalemate.


  • 17 August 2015 at 5:30pm
    John Perry says:
    There's another dimension to this too, which is the possibility that the gang leaders may (consciously or otherwise) be part of what might become a 'soft coup' against the left of centre government. This is explored in The Nation (, and given the ongoing US interference in Guatemala and Honduras, would hardly be surprising.