Gang truce as in el Salvador, or 'mano dura' as in Honduras? The Economist backs a truce
IF YOU ran a country and had to find a reliable partner to fight crime, you would probably not choose Carlos Mojica Lechuga. The ageing leader of one of El Salvador’s two fearsome street gangs is now safely behind bars. But for years his mob, Barrio 18, and its deadly rival, the Mara Salvatrucha, made war-zones of many poor parts of El Salvador, as well as terrorising a fair few districts in the United States, where the gangs were formed. Mr Mojica himself has been accused of ordering the decapitation of a teenage girl, whose body was then mutilated with a floor-polishing machine.
Yet in March 2012 President Mauricio Funes took a risk on Mr Mojica. The government brokered, somewhat shiftily and at arm’s length, a truce between the two gangs. In return for them giving up the killing, it has moved the gangs’ incarcerated leaders to lower-security prisons and created jobs in bakeries and farms for their members. Since then, in a region where the murder rate is climbing, El Salvador’s has fallen by half, saving perhaps 4,000 lives in two years (see article).
Was it worth it? That is an immediate question in El Salvador, which held the first round of its presidential election on February 2nd. But neighbouring Honduras and Belize have experimented with similar pacts. Last month Mexico’s government joined forces with a band of vigilantes to try to drive out a drug cartel. By contrast, although police in some American cities turn a blind eye to gangs if they keep the peace, the idea of a formal deal is anathema in the rich world. The United States is uneasy about the Salvadorean truce.
The opponents of such pacts say they erode faith in already-weak justice systems and bolster gangsters’ standing. El Salvador’s swaggering kingpins have been allowed to act like community leaders, at one point holding press conferences in their prisons. And though they have stopped killing each other, they have shown little interest in giving up crimes such as extortion, which ruins lives. Polls show that most Salvadoreans dislike the deal. Although Mr Funes is not running again, his vice-president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is stuck in a run-off, despite avoiding talking about the truce in the campaign.
That does not mean the truce was a mistake. In a country as weak as El Salvador, “zero tolerance” policing of the sort pioneered in New York does not work. The truce followed decades of mano dura (“iron fist”) policies, which succeeded only in turning El Salvador’s squalid prisons into heaving universities of crime. When cracking down failed, governments tried súper mano dura, but that did not work either. The year before the truce, the country of 6m endured more murders than all of western Europe. The ceasefire has let children cross gang turf to go to school and adults go to work without fear of attack. Though Salvadoreans dislike the truce, they also seem unimpressed by the iron fist: in the election on February 2nd the right-wing opposition, which had promised a tough line on the gangs, did worse than expected.
From fist to handshake
The next president will face a choice. The gangs have offered to extend the pact’s terms, to stop recruiting in schools and to cease telephone extortion (a phishing-type ruse, conducted from prison). Their demands—more jobs and better prison conditions—are not especially sinister. Meanwhile, as the commitment of politicians to the deal has wavered, so has that of the gangs: the murder rate has already started to creep back up. With the promise of state-backed jobs starting to evaporate, mobsters are returning to illegal sources of income.
That argues for extending the truce, but doing so in a different way. First, the government should use the time to build up institutions—not just the police, but also schools to help give youngsters an alternative career; it could provide more cash to get firms to hire people from the barrios. Second, this time, the government must play it straight. It failed to spell out the terms of the deal, at first barely acknowledging its existence and later only reluctantly releasing details. If elected, Mr Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla, should bring the agreement into the open, explaining how the lull in violence can be used to strengthen communities vulnerable to the gangs’ reach. The truce has saved lives. But the deals must be done in daylight.