Tuesday, April 8, 2014

El Salvador’s Gang Truce to Test President-Elect

The Associated Press has a somewhat misleading headline this morning: “Salvadoran Govt: Gang Truce Hasn’t Worked.” Salvadoran security officials, the news agency claims, have recognized that the government-facilitated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs has failed to rein in their criminal activity.

The problem with this is that the actual Justice and Public Security Ministry press release cited by the AP makes no mention of the truce. But it does note that police statistics show that the average daily homicide rate for the first three months of 2014 has risen to 8.9, compared to 6 per day in the same period last year. The ministry also claims that the number of attacks on police officers has risen compared to 2013, and that the gangs appear to have expanded their territorial control and “social and institutional” influence. Some gang factions are targeting security forces “with the goal of pressuring the new government that will take office in June,” according to the statement.

While the press release does not directly address the truce, it highlights the dilemma facing President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren. On the campaign trail he took great pains to avoid the issue, and has continued to do so after winning last month’s election, downplaying the government’s reliance on the ceasefire. He has so far given no indication whether he will continue unofficial support for the gang pact. With the homicide rate up 44 percent according to forensic authorities, this is becoming increasingly hard to justify to an already skeptical public.

But even with the increase, the average number of daily homicides remains significantly lower than its peak at roughly 12 per day in 2011, before the truce took effect. This places the incoming president in something of a catch-22, which news site El Faro summed up well in a recent editorial:
Two years after it began, the truce is now a political failure. Not even the president has wanted to publicly admit that it is a government strategy, and [former Security Minister] Munguia Payes and his negotiators have failed to garner enough support to make it a successful project. The truce has brought them high costs due to their failure to sell its benefits to the public. Or to the international community. 
At this point, and as has been already announced by gang leaders, breaking the truce could put the country in a situation that no government wants to face when it comes to office; especially when the state has not taken these past two years to prepare for its end.
Ultimately, Sanchez Ceren may have no choice but to continue his predecessor’s quiet backing of the truce. An even more drastic surge in homicides would only play into the hands of the opposition ARENA party, which fueled the narrative that the ruling FMLN is soft on crime -- and even complicit with the gangs -- in the lead-up to the election.  


News Briefs
  • In response to the recent AP story on the failed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) effort to launch a Twitter-like social network in Cuba to undermine government censorship, the agency has published a rebuttal to several of the AP’s allegations. According to the USAID, the program was conducted in complete compliance with the law and with oversight of the Government Accountability Office. The agency also denies that private information of Cuban subscribers was used to shape USAID policies, and that the budget for the program came from funds “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” as the AP claims.
  • Former USAID worker Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 for secretly working to provide locals with uncensored internet access, appears to have taken advantage of media focus on the Cuban Twitter story to announce that he has begun a hunger strike. According to a statement given by Gross’s lawyer, the move is a protest against the “shared responsibility” of the U.S. and Cuba for his continued confinement and mistreatment.
  • Yassmin Barrios, the Guatemalan judge who found ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, has been suspended from the country’s bar association, fined some $650, and prohibited from serving as a lawyer for one year. The penalty is in response to a petition filed by defense attorney Moises Galindo, who alleged that Barrios’ curt remarks to him during the trial constituted a breach of professional ethics.
  • Brazil’s O Estado reports that ongoing investigations into a money laundering and bribery scandal involving Petrobras have led authorities to lawmaker Andre Vargas of the ruling PT. Likely in an attempt to ward off any blowback ahead of October elections, Vargas has reportedly come under strong pressure from President Dilma Rousseff and the PT leadership to resign as a result of the allegations.
  • Yesterday Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he would meet face-to-face with opposition leaders, in accordance with a proposal made by the visiting UNASUR foreign ministers’ delegation. According to Ultimas Noticias, Maduro said he was prepared to “forgive” whatever necessary as part of a process of “national healing,” and that the meeting would be facilitated by the delegation.
  • In the wake of the Spanish government’s decision to suspend exports of riot gear to Venezuela last week, Venezuelan officials are not pleased. The Guardian reports that the Maduro government released a statement criticizing the decision, as well as questioning Spain’s “moral authority” on the issue. Venezuela also called on Spanish officials to follow Maduro’s example and “promote dialogue with its distinct social groups who are seeking justice.”
  • El Pais profiles a movement towards increased openness in Cuba’s state-controlled press. As the paper notes, economic reforms on the island have been accompanied by efforts to move state media away from an emphasis on “glorifying national realities,” towards more constructive criticism of flaws and inefficiencies in the country’s political system.
  • The Miami Herald looks at discontent among Colombian unions with the government’s failure to comply with a Labor Action Plan passed along with the its free-trade agreement with the United States, meant to improve labor rights in the country. According to a new joint report by four Colombian labor groups, union killings and threats have continued, and basic requirements in the agreement have gone unheeded by the government.
  • While the overall number of Haitians displaced by the disastrous 2010 earthquake has fallen, a new study by the International Organization for Migration shows that 78 of the 243 remaining refugee camps in the country have seen their population rise, in many cases due to an inability to pay rent elsewhere.
  • Jose Manuel Mireles, one of the most visible leaders of the so-called “autodefensa” militias in Mexico’s Michoacan state, has refused to obey the government’s order to disarm. The L.A. Times reports that barricades to keep out federal forces have sprung up in cities throughout the state, while Animal Politico adds that Mireles has refused to participate in disarmament until three major figures in the Knights Templar cartel have been captured.