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Truce between rival gangs in El Salvador seems to be crumbling

This past summer, U.S. photojournalist Giles Clarke gained access to a prison outside the Salvadoran capital, where he captured this image among many others. Most of the inmates are gang members. (Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

It was probably too good to last.

Last year’s truce between El Salvador’s two main street gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 – was a heroic accomplishment when it was first announced in March 2012, especially because it seemed to work.

The country’s soaring murder rate promptly plummeted, and El Salvador even experienced an entire day – April 14, 2012 – without any homicides at all, something that had not happened for a very long time.

Lately, however, there have been signs that the truce is faltering, if not collapsing altogether.

On a single day late last month, six young men were strangled during a fight between rival gangs in an overcrowded prison for juveniles just outside the capital, San Salvador.

It would be tempting to write that incident off as a brutal anomaly, except that it was nothing of the kind. The killings in the jail at Tonacatepeque merely highlight a recent and worrisome trend.

In the early days of the truce, El Salvador’s murder rate dropped from an average toll of about 12 killings a day to around five.

In late May, however, they began to rise again, hitting 16 a day in July, which was even worse than the mayhem that prevailed before the truce was reached.

“We said last year that the truce was fragile and that it could fracture in any moment,” Miguel Fortin, director of the Supreme Court’s Institute of Legal Medicine, told local media that month. “Time has proven us right.”

Like neighbouring Honduras, the Central American republic of El Salvador has been saddled in recent years with one of the highest murder rates in the world, mostly caused by turf wars between rival gangs, often relating to drugs.

Just last year, the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula replaced Juárez City in northern Mexico as the most murder-prone municipality on Earth.

In both Honduras and El Salvador, the main street gangs actually originated among Central American immigrants in and around Los Angeles in the 1980s. Their expansion in Central America has been aggravated by the steady deportation of hardened latino gangsters from the U.S. back to their countries of origin.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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