Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Removal of Security Minister Shows Dangers of El Salvador’s Gang Truce

The removal of the security minister who orchestrated a truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, and the gangs’ subsequent objections, illustrates the risk of raising their profile and affording them political influence in the country.  

On May 17, the constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Constitutional Court ruled that the appointment of two former generals as heads of law enforcement in the country violated the constitution. President Mauricio Funes first appointed General David Mungia Payes as security minister, and General Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera as head of the national police, in late 2011 and early 2012 amid concern about a return to “mano dura” security policies. Funes has said he will honor the court’s decision, and both ministers have stepped down.

But while the president has followed the ruling, it has received criticism from a surprising sector of society: leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs. In response to the court’s decision, gang leaders held a press conference in La Esperanza prison in San Salvador on Saturday announcing that the decision put their ceasefire at risk. This is likely because Munguia was a key architect of a truce between the rival gangs, which has caused the homicide rate in the Central American country to plummet since it was first announced in March 2012. With Munguia gone, the gangs want to ensure that someone else who will maintain the truce will take his place.

"Although the Constitutional Chamber of the Court has every right to issue such rulings, it does not have the right to join the association that in recent weeks has made ​​every effort to derail the peace process,” read a statement released by the gang leaders.

This kind of language illustrates the downside of the truce: the fact that negotiating a reduction in violence has put the gangs in a position to make demands of the state. As Hector Silva Avalos and Steve Dudley of InSight Crime put it:
“With the dismissal of the minister who conceived of, planned, and executed the truce, the president should name officials who support Munguia's plans and who have, like the general, direct lines of contact with the gang leaders – if the president wants to keep homicides low. To put it straight, the truce made the Mara leaders partners with the state, and whoever next takes charge of the security ministry should agree to keep them that way, to guarantee that homicides start dropping again. In that sense, those who assert that the truce ultimately depends on the gangs have a point.”
Now that the gangs are clearly progressing towards becoming political actors, the question is what they will seek to do with their influence. As the International Assessment and Strategy Center’s Doug Farah has pointed out, both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are well-poised to use their control of urban areas throughout the country to deliver votes to the highest bidder. With El Salvador’s main political parties already preparing for next year’s presidential elections, the odds are good that the gangs are looking to use this influence to back the candidate they see as most favorable to the truce.

News Briefs
  • Although there was some hope yesterday that the trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt could be restarted from its progress up to April 19, which the Constitutional Court declared the last valid date of proceedings, the New York Times reports that lawyers on both sides believe it will have to restart completely, likely with a new panel of judges. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, looks at whether the annulment of Rios Montt’s conviction is a product of elite influence over the judiciary.
  • The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog features a discussion of U.S. complicity in crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Guatemala, with four different experts on international law and Guatemala voicing their takes on the matter.
  • The Washington Post looks at Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s deployment of troops to the western state of Michoacan this week, noting that security there has barely improved since former President Felipe Calderon launched his drug war offensive by sending troops there in 2006. According to El Universal, the government has said troops will be charged with enforcing security in Michoacan “until conditions of peace and security are guaranteed.”
  • After weeks of refusing to yield the floor of Venezuela’s National Assembly to members of the opposition, Assembly President Diosdado Cabello finally yielded yesterday. But while the legislative body has taken up normal debate, a measure proposed by the opposition which called for an investigation into two recent brawls on the congressional floor was shot down, El Nacional reports.
  • Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is facing allegations of corruption after his mother in law was found to have purchased two properties in Lima for almost $5 million, El Comercio reports. This makes him the third former Peruvian head of state to be accused of corruption, which AFP notes helps clear the 2016 presidential field for popular First Lady Nadine Heredia.
  • The L.A. Times has an interview with Reinel Usuga, a former squad commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who deserted the guerrilla movement this month along with 10 others. According to Usuga, one of his main reasons for surrendering was the idea of top FARC leaders negotiating safe in Cuba while he and his men were facing regular attacks from Colombian security forces.
  • Writing for, Medellin-based journalist James Bargent looks at the 2005 murder of Colombian union leader Luciano Romero at the hands of paramilitaries. Romero was working for Nestle, and an investigation into the company’s collusion with paramilitary groups in northeastern Colombia is currently underway in Switzerland.
  • Chilean President Sebastian Piñera presented his last state of the union address yesterday, offering up a defense of his record on education, health and economic growth, El Mostrador and BBC Mundo report. It seems many Chileans remain unconvinced, however. The AP reports that around 10,000 people took part in a demonstration in Santiago against his education policies yesterday, and some 130 were arrested after clashes broke out between police and youths.
  • The Argentine prosecutor’s office has charged Daniel Muñoz, ex-secretary to deceased former President Nestor Kirchner, with participation in a high-level money laundering scheme, El Tribuno reports.

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