SAN SALVADOR – The two main gangs in El Salvador are negotiating a truce to show they are not responsible for the thousands of killings of which they are accused, but instead have been made the government’s “scapegoat.”
The announcement was made by hooded members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and the Mara 18 (M-18) gangs in separate meetings with the media where no questions were allowed.
Rivalry between the two groups has been said to cause most of the 10 murders committed in the country every day.
Included among the demands the gangs made to authorities in their statements was the investigation of supposed death squads within the police force and private security agencies.
The Mara Salvatrucha held the first meeting on Feb. 9, while the members of Mara 18 held theirs last Thursday.
The Mara Salvatrucha said that the nation’s President, Elías Antonio Saca, and his party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), had launched a campaign accusing them of the nationwide crime wave and every violent death that occurs, but “we swear that we are not the ones responsible.”
Instead the gang blamed “armed death squads operating inside the national police (PNC), among them the so-called Omega Group, as well as in private security agencies.”
In El Salvador there are some 80 private security firms with about 18,000 agents, a little more than the number of PNC officers.
The Mara 18 statement said that members of the PNC “with ski masks who make arrests without any justification” strike fear into their families and “we find it suspicious that every time there are elections the number of violent deaths increases.”
The gang said that victims are typically found “tied hand and foot with a bullet in the temple or dismembered, as used to happen in the war of the 1980s,” and for that reason they are asking for an investigation of the “social cleansing groups” which operate “like those death squads.”
El Salvador lived through 12 years of civil war that ended in January 1992 with the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), at that time a guerrilla group.
The civil war left 75,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared, mostly civilians slain by “death squads,” according to humanitarian organizations.
The Mara Salvatrucha said it “is preparing to come to an agreement with the other gang to make it perfectly clear that what we are denouncing does in fact exist and we don’t want to go on being the scapegoat of the government’s Hard Hand or Super Hard Hand policies.”
The Mara 18 statement said “the government has made us a scapegoat” and “we invite young people of the Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs to put aside our rivalries and observe a truce so that together we can fight against our enemies.”
In August 2004, President Saca launched his Super Hard Hand operation against the gangs, through which the PNC last year made 13,966 arrests, according to police officials, which estimates the total number of gang members at between 10,000 and 10,500.
Many gang members have been arrested several times and then freed by judges for lack of evidence.
Today some 4,000 gang members are incarcerated in jails around the country. This week some 1,700 gang members and their families staged a hunger strike to demand repeal of an article in the Penitentiary Law that limits relatives’ visits.
The president of the El Salvador Human Rights Commission (CDHES), Miguel Montenegro, said that a truce of the gangs could not only aid in reducing violence, but would also “confirm what we have already reported, the existence of death squads.”
Montenegro, like the FMLN official Medardo González, said that the government uses the gangs “for election purposes,” and that the police operations have not managed to lower the number of homicides, which have instead increased by 7 to 10 per day since mid-2004.
Legislator Guillermo Gallegos of ARENA said he was skeptical that there have been gang members calling a press conference and said, “I rather believe that this was a political show put on by the FMLN.”