Tuesday, October 8, 2013

When Will El Salvador’s President Admit His Role in the Gang Truce?

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Oscar Martinez of Salvadoran news site El Faro wrote an excellent op-ed piece on the politics of El Salvador’s gang truce. He notes that while various officials -- including former Security Minister David Munguia Payes -- have admitted that the government orchestrated the ceasefire between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs, President Mauricio Funes has downplayed his administration’s role. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly last month, for instance, the president stressed the government “had only been a facilitator” in the truce.

According to Martinez, this is a political calculation on Funes’ part, an attempt to safeguard his image. Instead of recognizing that the government had a hand in organizing a truce which has saved thousands of lives, Martinez claims that Funes is more interested in other numbers, “the kind that reflect his popularity in the polls.”

The problem with this is that it comes at the cost of transparency. Salvadorans are kept in the dark about the deals the government is making with imprisoned gang leaders, like transferring them to lower-security facilities in exchange for their participation in the truce. It also covers up the nature of the gangs’ bargaining power, which was on display last summer after a court ordered Munguia Payes to step down from his civilian position due to his military background. This was problematic for MS-13 and Barrio 18 leaders, as the general was one of the main orchestrators of the truce. As Martinez writes:
Soon after, the number of murders began increasing again. The gangs, upon seeing the governmental godfather of their pact removed from his post, demonstrated their power and left their response in blood. On one day in July, 27 people in different parts of the country were murdered in 24 hours. 
This is the danger of pretending the government doesn’t have a pact with the gangs. That bloody July day, the gangs showed they had learned their lesson, even if the government hadn’t: the government negotiates with improvements in prisons; the gangs negotiate with dead bodies. If the government fails, they will continue to kill. As political actors in this negotiation, the gangs learned that their greatest asset, their most valuable capital, is death. And that is a lesson they won’t forget anytime soon.
With the number of murders on the rise in recent months, there is reason to believe that the ceasefire is faltering. If it fails, Funes will have even less reason to acknowledge his government’s role in the truce. It is no doubt tempting for him to simply wash his hands of the matter altogether, especially since opinion polls show a majority of Salvadorans believe it benefits the gangs more than anyone else.

News Briefs
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will undergo surgery today to drain a buildup of blood in her skull after a recent head injury. Clarin reports that two of her doctors released a statement yesterday saying that the surgery was recommended on Sunday after she complained of tingling and a slight loss of strength in her left arm.  According to medical specialists consulted by the paper, the procedure is relatively low-risk.
  • The Associated Press takes a critical look at the push to “pacify” Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns. While homicides have fallen in Rio in recent years, an AP analysis of official figures reveals that the the number of missing person cases in the city and surrounding favelas has risen by 33 percent since 2007, to 4,090 reports last year. Human rights groups and low-income Rio residents blame much of the increase on police officers, who they say are carrying out extrajudicial killings.
  • Folha de São Paulo reports that the Brazilian Truth Commission has discovered a previously unknown archive of some 1.2 million pages of internal records kept by the Brazilian Navy during the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship.
  • On Monday, Dominican President Danilo Medina met with a group of activists campaigning against the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court recent decision to strip citizenship to the children of largely Haitian migrant workers. While the meeting -- which was held at the request of UN officials in the country -- did not bring any change in policy, one of the activists told reporters the president offered a “glimmer of hope.”
  • On Monday, Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet promised to implement new tax reforms in her first 100 days of office if elected, raising corporate tax to pay for her planned overhaul of the education system. Reuters notes that these proposals suggest Bachelet is veering significantly to the left of the centrist approach she adopted in her previous administration.
  • The BBC reports that Bolivian officials arrested Luis Cutipa, the head of the country’s coca control and industrialization agency yesterday, accusing him of diverting 45 tons of coca leaves to the black market. According to La Razon, Cutipa is also suspected of illegally profiting from an increase in the price of coca sellers´ licenses.
  • El Tiempo reports on Colombia’s emergence as a military heavyweight in the region, illustrated by Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon’s recent tour of eight other Latin American countries. Pinzon met with military officials in Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in a bid to “export” Colombia’s security model. In a remark with alarming human rights implications, Pinzon told the paper that the decision in some countries to reduce the size of their military after signing peace accords was a mistake, which “left openings for organized crime.”
  • Animal Politico profiles Mexico’s experiment with special courts for non-violent drug offenders, modeled after U.S. drug courts.  Judge Demetrio Cadena described Nuevo Leon’s drug courts as an attempt to “copy exactly what the United States is doing to not fill up jails with criminals that menace society with their addiction.”
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called on the Canadian government to explain itself after local media reported that a document leaked by Edward Snowden suggests Canadian intelligence monitored the electronic communications of personnel within Brazil’s Mining and Energy Ministry for economic purposes. The New York Times reports that so far, Canada has offered no public explanation for the revelation. According to the Wall Street Journal, the surveillance data was reportedly shared with the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand, the members of an intelligence ring referred to as “Five Eyes.”