The Inside Story of the Salvadoran Gang Truce


EspañolPaolo Lüers, a Salvadoran journalist of German origin, may be one of the most controversial people in the country. Paolo came to El Salvador in the 1980s as a photojournalist and war correspondent for a German newspaper. After covering El Salvador’s brutal civil war, he decided to stay and join the guerrilla.

After the 1992 Peace Accords, Lüers decided to settle in El Salvador permanently and help rebuild the country he now considers his own.

Lüers was a mediator during the truce from March 2012 to June 2013
Lüers was a mediator during the truce from March 2012 to June 2013. (@paololuers)

He married Salvadoran ballerina Daniela Heredia. Together they had a son and opened a restaurant and bar called La Ventana. To this day, it remains a place where Salvadorans can enjoy a good meal with a German beer.

Since breaking ties with Marxists in El Salvador, his former comrades now consider him a “sell out” to the conservative party. These days Lüers continues to write opinion columns in the many editorial spaces available to him, touching on a wide variety of issues the country is currently dealing with.

Few of those writings have generated as much controversy as those dealing with the peace process between El Salvador’s gangs.

Commonly known as “the truce,” the peace process has been the subject of heavy criticism. Many have pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding the government’s role in the process, and whether it had negotiated directly with the gangs as some have claimed.

Paolo welcomed me to his restaurant, where he explained his role as mediator in the process which began in March 2012. Even though the truce experienced setbacks in June 2013, Lüers is optimistic and believes the peace process presents El Salvador with a tremendous opportunity.

The Key to Reducing Homicides

Moments after sitting at the table, Paolo gets up again to get something.

“Hold on for just a second,” he says. “I want you to see something, so you’ll understand what I’m about to explain.”

He returns with his laptop and he shows me a chart with the murder data before the truce began: 14 homicides per day.

During the 14 months of the truce, homicides went down to five per day.

Unfortunately, the murder rate has been increasing ever since the truce suffered a setback in June 2013.

“Do you see how it starts increasing?” Lüers asks, as he points to the chart on his computer. “This is when Ricardo Perdomo began as minister of Justice in June 2013, and the mediation process fell apart.”

The history of the truce in one chart.

What role did Perdomo play in the murder rate increase?

Since his first day in office, Perdomo hurt the mediation process. The government’s strategy changed.

Perdomo fired Nelson Rauda, the director of Prison Facilities, who played a vital role in facilitating both the peace process and our work as mediators. After Rauda was fired, the mediators could not enter the jails to have meetings with gang leaders.

Perdomo also started smearing three of the most prominent mediators (former guerrilla leader Raúl Mijango, Monsignor Fabio Colindres, and Lüers). He then replaced us with other mediators appointed by the government, who the gangs didn’t accept.

And one of those new mediators was “Father Toño,” who was recently accused of collaborating with the gangs in his role as mediator?

Yes, he entered the process as a mediator appointed by the government, unlike us. The three of us did not answer to the state. But the gang leaders did not trust Toño.

To gain their trust, he started to do favors for them — delivering cell phones, cell phone chips, chargers. He was accused [of wrongdoing], and he admitted to the crimes.

With him, a real mediation was never achieved.

Describe your work as mediator.

During the 14 months I was involved, the mediation was very intense. We — the mediators — used to work directly with the violence that was occurring in some of the worst areas.

But wasn’t the truce designed to prevent those deaths from happening?

The truce is not an immediate process. You have to realize the difference between five and 14 murders per day. The numbers would not have been reduced if the war between the gangs had continued.

When the mediators knew someone had just been murdered, we took action over the next few hours to prevent that death from resulting in two or five more.

That process can take place in several locations. The mediators went to those places to ask the gang leaders what was going on and why the deaths occurred.

In many of those instances, the authorization of the director of Prison Facilities is needed to make the calls, so the leaders could control the situation.

We demanded answers from the gangs, instead of making promises.

How can one death cause several more?

OEA Security Secretary Adam Blackwell, Fabio Colindres, José Miguel Insulza and Raúl Mijango supporting the Peace Process.
OEA Security Secretary Adam Blackwell, Fabio Colindres, José Miguel Insulza, and Raúl Mijango in El Salvador in support of the peace process. (Flickr)

If a gang member is killed by a member of a rival gang, someone is going to get revenge — and not by killing just one person. They are going to make up for the guy they lost, and then inflict more damage. So, they will kill two more guys. And then three guys will get killed to avenge those two guys, and so on.

With the peace process, what we tried to do was prevent the revenge killings. This is how you reduce 14 murders a day to five.

In Los Angeles, where they have also looked to prevent revenge killings, the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Progress reports similar figures.

And where do the other five murders a day come from?

Those homicides were not gang related, or were the result of gang members who did not obey gang orders.

Those could be deaths from everyday criminal activity or other personal problems.

And when Perdomo took over, the mediation process could not continue?

Exactly. We couldn’t intervene to prevent more deaths, and the homicide rate began to increase again. The mediation process was a permanent effort. When it stopped, the violence went up.

Paolo, how did the truce begin?

The process started in response to gang member deaths, both in and out of prison. Little by little, most of them started to realize that they were involved in an war they didn’t start. And more importantly, they realized they didn’t have a clue why the war was even happening. They realized they were as poor as their parents and grandparents, and conditions for their children were not improving.

Are you saying the truce process was the gangs’ idea?

Gradually, it started to dawn on them. When the gang members met with each other, they began to acknowledge that it was not a sign of weakness, and they realized they were not alone in thinking these things.

This is why the process was not a government initiative.

People who chose to be murderers can suddenly change their outlook?

Don’t forget they are human beings too. They come from very impoverished backgrounds, from broken families.

The most important thing that’s happened is Colindres showed gang leaders that their enemies where thinking the same things they were. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t even conceive that the other side would feel the same way they did — just as it is difficult for you to believe the idea of a truce could have come from the gangs.

We we were able to show the gangs, and have them understand: “your enemy feels the same way, he has experienced the same things as you, and his family is experiencing the same things.” It was much easier to come to a place of understanding, and begin the peace process. They changed their way of thinking.

Is that why, in their latest press release, the gangs thanked the negotiator, saying they don’t want to end up in a jail, hospital, or a cemetery?

Precisely. They realized the path they were on didn’t give them much choice, and put their families at great risk.

It was not as immediate or structured of a process as I am explaining to you now. Colindres slowly helped them see the process in this light.

The Truce Makes Sense

Paolo tells me he is in the process of writing a “long, long, long” article titled “The Defense of the Truce,” because he will never agree with those that say none of this ever made any sense.

For him, it was the only thing that made sense.

He can now speak freely about the process, since the situation has been “screwed up.” While it was ongoing, however, he says he wouldn’t have said a word under any circumstances.

How did all of this violence begin? What gave rise to these gangs?

The gangs come from very neglected neighborhoods, where access to basic opportunities — safety and security, health care, deccent education — is very limited, [and] where families are disintegrated or have serious problems. [They come from places] where the state doesn’t exist, [and] there is a vacuum that is an ideal environment for gang activity.

The gang is like a family. During the truce, we never thought it was possible to break up a gang — that would never happen. The point was to eliminate the criminal element within the gangs.

During the truce, murders went down, but crime and extortion continued. What does that say about its effectiveness?

You have to understand that this is not a process that will take effect over night. If suddenly the gang leaders order an end to extortions, that order will probably not be followed because that’s how they earn a living. It’s not easy for them to find a job, there is a stigma attached to them. If their IDs show where they live, they won’t be hired.

The peace process must be about more than just preventing murders. It must make a strong investment in many areas. The peace process needs to become a process of rehabilitation, reintegration, and pacification.

Imagine you have six kids, but two of them get into trouble, and the rest do nothing wrong. This is evidence that, as a parent, you have done something wrong. You need to find them, and give them a hand.

Many people have expressed that the practical solution might just be to kill them all, and be done with it. But can you imagine if all of the sudden that many people were killed? That genocide would be terrible for the nation. Not only would violence return, it would return even stronger.

Not only would you inflict severe pyschological damage on an entire nation, but what would you do if suddenly 30,000 Salvadorans were killed?

Without a doubt, I would try to leave the country.

Exactly! The damage would be worse than what we already have.

Do you mean to say that it benefits society to support a peace process between the gangs?

If you want to think of it like that, then yes.

A country will never progress if 30,000 of her sons are involved in crime. The problem will never vanish if investment in a real rehabilitation is not made. In the end, this process should be an opportunity for rehabilitation.

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