From 'Iron Fist' to Hand of Peace

IN THE TRAGIC, often-hopeless world of gang violence, this year’s truce between two notorious gangs in El Salvador offers reasons for hope and a breakthrough opportunity for change.

Beginning in March, leaders of the infamous gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 called a truce from behind prison walls. The agreement was mediated by Monsignor Fabio Colindres, the Catholic chaplain for the Salvadoran police and military, and Raúl Mijango, a former legislator and, before that, military commander in the FMLN, the onetime guerrilla movement that is now the country’s elected ruling party.

The truce, which was still in effect at press time, immediately reduced violence in El Salvador, which has been among the world’s most deadly countries in recent years. Since early April, said President Mauricio Funes in late August, the murder rate has gone down to around five per day, a decrease of more than 60 percent from the 13.5 per day average of January and February.

The gang violence that has plagued El Salvador and other Central American countries in recent years is an import, brought by youth deported from the United States. MS-13 and Barrio 18 both originated on the streets of Los Angeles—ironically, built by young people whose families were refugees fleeing the U.S.-backed violence of Central American civil wars and death squads in the 1980s.

But just as violence can be moved across national borders, peace can be as well.

In July, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador, a group of U.S. community workers with gang intervention expertise, sent an 11-member delegation to assess the truce and consult with their Salvadoran counterparts on ways to support it.

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