Wednesday, January 30, 2013

El Salvador's Maras Accuse U.S. of 'Obstructing' Gang Truce

On Monday afternoon, the leaders of the most powerful Salvadoran “maras,” or street gangs, released a statement in which they sharply condemned the U.S. State Department’s recently-released travel warning for El Salvador as an attempt to hinder the gangs’ historic ceasefire in the country. The statement, which was given to local media at a press conference held by leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 at La Esperanza prison in San Salvador, criticized the data cited in the travel warning as “outdated.”

In its notice, the State Department acknowledged that while the truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 has dramatically reduced the number of homicides in the country, crime and violence remain serious threats to security. It warned U.S. citizens traveling there to “exercise caution” in order to reduce their risk of falling prey to robbery or extortion. Salvador However, the warning only cited crime statistics from 2010 and 2011, when violent crime levels in El Salvador had reached an all-time high. 

As the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Linda Garrett notes, the timing of the announcement is extremely odd. Although it cited data from 2010 and 2011, the State Department did not issue a single travel warning during those years. The decision to release the warning now, when the homicide rate is at its lowest since 2003, seems suspiciously like an attempt to cast doubt on the efficacy of the gang truce, which is credited with reducing murders by two-thirds since it was first negotiated in March 2012.

The gang leaders pointed this out as well. In surprisingly flowery language, the MS-13 and Barrio 18 said that they respect the United States’ “indifferent attitude” towards the truce. But they also stressed that if the U.S. was not going to facilitate the truce (which has progressed to a second stage involving the creation of “peace zones” throughout the country), it should at least not attempt to “obstruct” it.

This is not the first U.S. action which could be seen as an attempt to discredit the gang truce. In October, the U.S. Treasury added the MS-13 to its list of dangerous transnational criminal organizations, ranking it with Mexico’s Zetas cartel and the Russian mafia despite the objections of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

Whether or not the gangs’ objection to the travel warning is justified, such polished press statements point to a larger issue in El Salvador: the question of whether the government’s recognition of the truce has afforded the gangs a dangerously high profile. As the International Assessment and Strategy Center’s Doug Farah has argued, this could allow them to use new-found political clout as a means of increasing their overall criminal influence in the country.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian investigators have determined that the nightclub fire which killed more than 230 over the weekend was caused  by the kinds of flares used by the band for its onstage pyrotechnics display, which were for outdoor use only. The AP reports that the use of these flares was an attempt by the band to save money. Other media outlets and Brazil analysts have focused on the impact that Brazilian culture may have played on both the fire and its aftermath. The New York Times, for instance, reports that Brazil is confronting a “fatalistic” society, and cites an O Globo editorial which asserts that the fire and loss of in general in the country could be partially explained by “administrative ineptitude, corruption, omission of public authorities and conformity of the common citizen.” Meanwhile, Reuters says that the fire has caused many Brazilians to worry that their “culture of haphazard regulation and lax accountability” could impede the country’s development.
  • Colombia's Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa announced yesterday that the Colombian government will present a bill to congress which would legalize the possession of small amounts of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy. According to El Pais and El Tiempo, the new law would allow Colombians to possess 200 milligrams or "three pills" of these substances.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have acknowledged that they have captured two Colombian policemen in the southwest province of Valle del Cauca, El Tiempo reports. In a statement, the FARC said it considers the two to be prisoners of war, and said it has offered to organize a prisoner swap with the government.
  • Colombian human rights monitoring group Nuevo Arco Iris has an interesting piece on the accommodations of the FARC negotiating team in Havana, Cuba, where the guerrilla leaders are staying in mansions formerly belonging to sugar plantation owners.
  • In the wake of the disastrous fire in Brazil, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered the National Police to ban indoor pyrotechnic displays in the Central American country on Tuesday, according to El Nuevo Diario.
  • After the discovery of several bodies of kidnapped musicians in a well in northern Mexico earlier this week, officials say that all of the victims’ bodies have now been located in the well. Mexican police say they are still looking into the motives behind the murder of the group, which is popular in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.
  • Writing for the Global Post, Girish Gupta takes a look at optimism among Chavistas in Venezuela in response to news that Hugo Chavez’s health is improving. As he notes, many in the pro-Chavez camp are hopeful that the Venezuelan president will make a return to the country on February 4th, the 21st anniversary of his failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. Some among the opposition suspect this as well, and believe that this is why opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been surprisingly muted in his criticism of the vice president ruling in Chavez’s absence.
  • Although the upcoming presidential elections in Honduras are still ten months away, La Prensa has released the results of an opinion poll on the presumed candidates’ favorability. The poll shows the left-wing Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, virtually tied with current congressional president Juan Hernandez, at 25 percent and 22 percent. 
  • The Israeli government on Tuesday conveyed “astonishment and disappointment” in response to the announcement that Argentina would work with Iran to establish an independent commission charged with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the New York Times reports.
  • La Nacion reports that Argentina is overjoyed at the news that the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix will be abdicating the throne in favor of her son Prince Willem-Alexander, because it means that his wife Maxima, an Argentine, will become the “world’s first Argentine queen.”

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