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.
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