The Open Secret of Government-Gang Talks
El Salvador’s lull in homicides was likely the result of such negotiations. They’d be far from Latin America’s first.
By Catherine Osborn
By Catherine Osborn
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A bloody weekend in El Salvador prompts new questions about government-gang talks, the film Encanto wins big at the Oscars with a tale of Colombia, and Peru’s president survives another impeachment vote.
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Negotiating the War on Crime
Last weekend, El Salvador experienced the bloodiest 24-hour period since the end of its civil war in 1992. Beginning on Friday and throughout the day on Saturday, suspected gang members carried out attacks across the country, killing shoppers, bus passengers, and other passersby. By Sunday, more than 70 people were dead, and President Nayib Bukele declared a national state of emergency.
The violence was all the more shocking considering that, since 2015, El Salvador’s annual homicide rate has been falling dramatically: from a towering 105 homicides per 100,000 people that year to just 17.6 in 2021.
According to police sources cited by the news site El Faro, many of the victims had no connection to Salvadoran gangs, suggesting the killings were not a settling of scores between rival criminal groups. Rather, many analysts suggested the killings aimed to send a message to the Salvadoran government that the gangs were displeased with something and would not hesitate to instantly and dramatically perpetrate violent acts to show it.
Both El Faro and the U.S. government say the Bukele administration secretly negotiated a truce with gangs including MS-13 and Barrio 18 soon after the start of Bukele’s term in 2019. A U.S. Treasury Department statement announcing sanctions on two members of Bukele’s administration in December 2021 said they had given the gangs financial incentives in return for political support and the gangs’ assurances “that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low.” Last weekend’s deadly flare-up looks like even more evidence that the previous lull in homicides had been a deliberate choice by gangs to hold back as part of this truce rather than the result of Bukele’s publicly announced security policies.
“I don’t see a single scenario in which the secret talks between this government and the gangs don’t have a key—if not total—role in this massacre,” El Faro’s Óscar Martínez wrote in El País.
The gangs that operate in El Salvador today were born in Los Angeles’s prisons and streets and spread to the Central American country through deportations beginning in the 1990s. Hard-line security policies and poor Salvadoran prison conditions escalated the cycle of violence, so much so that, by the early 2010s, Salvadoran government officials began to negotiate with gangs out of desperation. A truce between government officials and numerous gangs was made in 2012 but collapsed in 2014, leading to the huge number of killings the following year.
In public, Bukele has disdained the idea of talks with gangs. Yet it seems his government pursued a new truce in secret.
Now, last weekend’s massacre has cast doubt on how much longer Bukele’s own truce can survive, especially after El Salvador’s legislature dramatically increased maximum sentences for gang members on Wednesday.
While government-gang talks are ethically and legally fraught—as well as controversial with the general public—they have also proved effective at reducing violence in Latin America on more than one occasion. In Brazil, many analysts credit alleged talks between the São Paulo state government and the gang First Capital Command (PCC) in 2006 with helping to stem a killing spree. For years afterward, homicides in the state of São Paulo fell.
Many agreements between state and non-state actors in the region are informal. Today, police and the PCC have a “de facto consensus” which often means “the state is cautious about intervening in violent kinds of ways,” University of Cambridge ethnographer Graham Denyer Willis told Foreign Policy. In countries like Mexico, police in gang-dominated areas “have to manage these relationships” with organized crime daily, the International Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe told Foreign Policy. If they don’t, they can “face huge risks of violent payback.”
The fact that several Latin American governments have also resorted to formal talks is a grim indicator of the gangs’ power—and the failure of conventional methods to stop them.
Scholars and analysts have argued that these formal talks should be more closely studied so that both their potential and pitfalls can be more widely understood. In 2020, the Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote a paper with the Institute for Integrated Transitions that surveyed participants in eight such negotiations in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, and Mexico. In those talks, gangs negotiated with interlocutors including governments, humanitarian organizations, and clergy with mixed success.
Factors that hurt the negotiations, she wrote, included internal divisions between negotiating groups, public disapproval of the talks, and the emergence of actors who hoped to sabotage a deal. Even so, cases from four countries suggested that “negotiations can contribute to a reduction in violence”—even more so if they are accompanied by interventions that address root causes of violence or strengthen governance.
Briscoe has argued that, in El Salvador, Bukele has enough political capital to go public about his talks and that the increased transparency would allow for both sides to build confidence in the process. That could also help avoid a truce breakdown like the one that occurred in 2014. At the time, the Salvadoran public rejected the negotiations, the government failed to deliver promised social investments in gang communities, and members of each side in the talks lost faith in the process, Felbab-Brown wrote in her study.
If the current truce breaks—or has already broken—El Salvador may soon return to the rankings of the world’s most dangerous countries. Its brief hiatus from such rankings is worth further study. Controversial as Bukele’s negotiations were, they likely hold lessons for the rest of the region.
Sunday, April 3: Costa Rica holds a presidential runoff election.
Sunday, April 10: Mexico holds a presidential recall referendum.
What We’re Following
Castillo survives. On Monday, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo survived Congress’s second impeachment effort against him in just eight months in office. Impeachment in Peru is possible under the vague justification of “moral incapacity,” so all signs point to the country’s opposition trying again soon. Castillo’s approval rating is around 25 percent. A newcomer to national politics whose party controls less than a third of Congress, he has already conducted three cabinet shake-ups. As Castillo’s turbulent term drags on, he may not survive next time.
Departing diplomats. Both Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and a top Nicaraguan lawyer at the International Court of Justice resigned in the last two weeks, citing their disapproval of the country’s democratic backsliding under President Daniel Ortega.
Ortega’s rule has been the subject of condemnation and sanctions from the international community. But that hasn’t stemmed his harsh crackdown on dissenters, which recently included an eight-year prison sentence for main opposition figure Cristiana Chamorro.
BRICS shoulder on. The BRICS group of emerging economies, which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, held a virtual launch event last week for an initiative to cooperate on vaccine research and development. Health cooperation will also be one of the themes of this year’s BRICS summit, which Beijing is due to host at a yet-unscheduled date.
BRICS nations have taken different stances than Western ones on the war in Ukraine. Although Brazil voted in favor of the U.N. General Assembly motion on March 2 calling for Russia to end its military operations in Ukraine, President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday that he would not “take a side” in the war. China, India, and South Africa abstained from the U.N. vote.
India has attempted to stay neutral in the conflict, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has blamed it on NATO, and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Wednesday that Sino-Russian relations had “no limits.”
Question of the Week
Which country qualified for South America’s World Cup intercontinental playoff spot on Tuesday? The team is not among the four South American teams that have already secured spots in Qatar but will compete in June against a similarly ranked country from elsewhere in the world for a chance to go.
Peru beat Paraguay 2-0 on Tuesday to advance to an inter-confederation playoff. If the team wins in June, it will encounter Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Ecuador at the World Cup—all of which have already secured spots.
In Focus: The Meticulously Researched Magic of Encanto
When Encanto won the Oscar for best animated feature on Sunday night, its co-director Byron Howard thanked “the entire country of Colombia.”
Despite some eye rolls when the Academy accompanied the award with a song by Marc Anthony, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, Colombians overwhelmingly celebrated the Disney film inspired by their country.
“For Colombians it’s important to see ourselves represented in a positive light, given that we’re so used to being about cocaine and war,” Javeriana University’s Martín Anzellini told the Guardian. Encanto was the most-viewed film in Colombian theaters in 2021, and both conservative President Iván Duque and leftist presidential front-runner Gustavo Petro tweeted their congratulations for the Oscar win.
Anzellini, an architect, was among a group of Colombian consultants for the Disney writers that also included dancers, anthropologists, and journalists. The film is a magical realist tale of a family forced to relocate due to armed conflict, putting in motion a young girl’s journey to find her place in her new home. Colombian architecture, flora, hairstyles, and dance moves were meticulously incorporated, and Colombian actors voiced several of the characters.
For many Colombian viewers, the story felt deeply personal. “Ever since I saw Encanto, I can’t stop thinking about my grandmother,” lawyer Alma Beltrán y Puga wrote in La Silla Vacia. Like the matriarch in the film, Beltrán y Puga’s grandmother grew up in the countryside. “Enchantment (encanto) doesn’t happen by chance. It’s an act of faith in people’s abilities,” she wrote.
Film critic Pedro Adrián Zuluaga wrote in Critério that the vague way forced displacement is depicted in the film—without identifying its specific aggressors—seemed consistent with the way La Violencia, a period of civil conflict in the mid-20th century, “entered into the conscience of many Colombians.”
Still, Zuluaga and other commentators wrote that it seemed unrealistic that the characters’ different skin tones were not the source of any tension in the film—an apparent sign of a “U.S. melting pot” mentality, he wrote.
Soon, Colombian viewers will have a new cultural megaproduction to sink their critical teeth into: One Hundred Years of Solitude, prohibited by author Gabriel García Márquez from being adapted into film while he was alive, is currently being adapted for Netflix with a Spanish-language script and a Latin American cast.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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