Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Gang “truces” are not what Central America needs

Many in Washington have been expressing growing alarm over the devastating toll that drug trafficking and gang activity have taken on the countries of Central America, primarily in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Caught between more robust counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico that have forced drug-trafficking organizations to expand operations elsewhere while absorbing  convicted gang ...

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Many in Washington have been expressing growing alarm over the devastating toll that drug trafficking and gang activity have taken on the countries of Central America, primarily in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Caught between more robust counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico that have forced drug-trafficking organizations to expand operations elsewhere while absorbing  convicted gang deportees from the U.S., these countries' already weak law enforcement and judicial institutions have simply been overwhelmed.

It is in this context that controversial and risky policy prescriptions such as calls for drug legalization by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina or El Salvador's "truce" with criminal gangs are being met with less skepticism than they deserve. It is not always true that desperate situations demand desperate actions. In many cases, they only make matters worse.

This week, the Washington Post weighed in with an editorial endorsing El Salvador's gang truce (and Honduras's decision to follow the same path) as "a worthy peace offering" because El Salvador's government claims a drop in the murder rate since the agreement was announced last year.

Many in Washington have been expressing growing alarm over the devastating toll that drug trafficking and gang activity have taken on the countries of Central America, primarily in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Caught between more robust counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico that have forced drug-trafficking organizations to expand operations elsewhere while absorbing  convicted gang deportees from the U.S., these countries’ already weak law enforcement and judicial institutions have simply been overwhelmed.

It is in this context that controversial and risky policy prescriptions such as calls for drug legalization by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina or El Salvador’s "truce" with criminal gangs are being met with less skepticism than they deserve. It is not always true that desperate situations demand desperate actions. In many cases, they only make matters worse.

This week, the Washington Post weighed in with an editorial endorsing El Salvador’s gang truce (and Honduras’s decision to follow the same path) as "a worthy peace offering" because El Salvador’s government claims a drop in the murder rate since the agreement was announced last year.

Yet a closer scrutiny of the El Salvador situation raises more questions than it answers. It is not hard to conclude it represents more of a false promise of peace than any lasting solution to the region’s troubles.

That’s because, to begin with, the government’s pursuit of a truce with the gangs comes not from a position of strength, but of weakness – a fact no doubt understood by the gangs, who are now in a stronger position vis-à-vis the government than they would otherwise be. They now control the agenda and can use the threat of violence (i.e., breaking the "truce") to exact more concessions from the government, whether it is more scarce state resources devoted to their interests (such as social programs designed just for gang members), more so-called "peace zones" where gangs can operate with impunity, and more recognition of gangs as political players in the country’s domestic scene.

Indeed, public sentiment in El Salvador continues to be extremely wary of the truce, not least of which is because the gangs have not stopped other criminal activities such as kidnappings and extortion that have wreaked havoc on their society. (There are also questions about the government’s accounting of the murder rate.) But also because they see gangs getting financial rewards and political relevancy not by following the rules, but by breaking all of them.

The Obama administration has wisely kept its distance from these "truce" initiatives. That’s because veteran policymakers know there are no shortcuts to rooting out criminality; it requires instead committing to the hard slog of building viable law enforcement, judiciary, and penal systems – in short, credible and effective rule of law. (Only then can social programs designed to reintegrate truly repentant gang members into society succeed.)

One also has to recognize the political dynamic at play here. The ruling, former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) came to power promising citizens a safer and more stable country. This they have not delivered.  Heading into presidential elections in March 2014, one doesn’t have to be a cynic to believe the FMLN wants the issue of street violence off the table before the campaign season kicks into high gear. Their political calculations have to be an issue in how they are trying to achieve real peace.

One can certainly otherwise understand sincere efforts to try and quell the violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. But political expediency or rolling the dice and hoping for the best are rarely sound bases for public policies.  

The Post editorial ends by endorsing the Obama administration’s request for a 20 percent increase in funding next year for the Central American Security Initiative, a multi-faceted program supporting law enforcement and judicial reform and social programs to support civil society. That is welcome, but it may not be enough. All must recognize there are no quick fixes to helping our friends deal with problems due in part to U.S. demand for illicit narcotics. It is a battle we and our allies can win, but not in the short-term and not with schemes that will only make matters worse in the long-run.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.