Perspective: The Salvadoran Government’s Negotiations with Gangs: A Critical Assessment
Jonathan D. Rosen
Salvadoran Army Patrol in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, July 2022. Source: Pizza King13, (CC-BY-4.0)
Polling data consistently indicates that citizens in Latin America feel unsafe. Consequently, many Latin American politicians have been in a race to the bottom over who can better combat gangs, crime, and violence. One of the strategies is to negotiate with criminal actors under the table to reduce violence. This article examines the concept of government negotiations with gangs in El Salvador. In 2021, the United States government recognized that secret negotiations occurred between the Nayib Bukele government and Salvadoran gangs. This article argues that negotiation strategies are not a sound policy solution to the underlying structural issues fostering gangs, crime, violence, and state fragility.
In September 2020, journalists produced a lengthy report contending that President Bukele had spent a year negotiating with Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which is the most powerful gang in the country. Bukele has denied the reports and criticized the journalists from El Faro as pawns of George Soros’ Open Society. Several prominent Salvadoran journalists writing on the alleged secret negotiations fled the country fearing for their safety.
Why would the Salvadoran government negotiate with gangs? The logic of gang negotiations is straightforward. The government wants the homicide rate to decrease in exchange for meeting some of the demands of the gang leaders. The top gang leaders know that they will likely never return to the streets. Research reveals that many of the gang leaders call the shots from behind bars. In fact, the highest position in the gangs (Ranfleros) exist on the streets and in the prison system. The gang leaders want better conditions, even asking for access to food from a popular Salvadoran chicken company. More importantly, gang leaders want to move to lower security prisons, which can increase their control behind the prison gates.
Yet one of the biggest challenges in any negotiation—formal or informal— between gangs and the government is their opaque nature. Said differently, none of the Salvadoran gang negotiations—neither the 2012 truce nor the alleged deals between the Bukele administration and the gangs—can be characterized by transparency. The Salvadoran government backpaddled from the 2012 negotiation and later arrested people involved in the truce—from the chief negotiator to the director of the prison system.
Gang negotiations often break down because of the issue of trust and the difficulty of cutting deals with multiple actors. Given their past histories and involvement in numerous crimes, it is difficult for the government to trust criminal groups. Most importantly, cutting a deal with one group could lead to rival gangs wanting the same arrangement. El Salvador not only has MS-13, but the 18th Street Southerners and Revolutionaries, along with smaller gangs and various transportista groups (e.g., The Texis Cartel).
History also reveals that gangs respond with violence when negotiations fail. While the truce between 2012 and 2014 led to homicide rates dropping, violence increased after the truce broke down. In 2015, for instance, the homicide rate surpassed 100 per 100,000, making El Salvador the most violent country in the world. The government responded with a series of mano dura policies, which led to massive spikes in the prison population.
In March 2022, gang members killed more than 60 people one ominous Saturday. The goal was to signal to President Bukele that the gangs were unhappy with the alleged agreement arranged between the gang leadership and the government. These acts of violence led the Bukele administration to respond with a state of emergency, which has been extended indefinitely. The Bukele administration cracked down and arrested more than 50,000 suspected gang members. In February 2023, the administration transferred gang members to a mega-prison.
President Bukele is signaling to his base that he is willing to combat gangs at whatever costs necessary. International organizations and other governmental leaders, including the US Secretary of State, have been highly critical of Bukele’s policies. President Bukele has not only concentrated power through a litany of anti-democratic practices, but he has violated human rights while implementing gang crackdowns.
The Bukele administration will likely double down on the combo-strategy of secret negotiations and tough-on-crime policies. While gangs have been wounded in El Salvador, they have not disappeared. El Salvador does not have the death penalty, and history reveals that many of the gang members will return to the streets. It appears that the dance between the gangs and the government will continue for the foreseeable future. Negotiations may have short-term impacts on the homicide rates, but secret negotiations are ineffective in the long run.
Addressing gangs and security-related concerns in El Salvador requires strengthening institutions across the board. Reforming the police must be coupled with judicial and prison reform. Reducing corruption, decreasing impunity, and improving transparency are essential when focusing on a long-term strategy that solves the underlying problems that enabled gangs to thrive in the first place. Yet instead of concentrating on systematic reforms, the Bukele administration has focused on fanning the flames of anti-gang rhetoric and strengthening its grip on power at whatever cost necessary.
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For Additional Reading
Jonathan D. Rosen, “Understanding Bukele’s Gang Crack Down in El Salvador.” Small Wars Journal, 1 November 2022.