A few days ago I had an amazing experience. The second day of an OAS conference on peaceful methods of combatting gang-violence, which I attended, included an excursion to two so-called peace-muncipals.
The morning of the excursion I got stuck in the traffic – and I had an accident with the car. No way, I missed the departure of the excursion and went to have to car fixed, hoping it would be quick so that I myself could drive to at least the second municipal, where there would be some kind of an activity, I had understood.
The car was fixed and I drove to Ciudad Delgado, to the parish centre of San Laureano, a small semi-rural community.
Already on the highway I understood that the activity must be big: a long line of chicken buses were parked along the road and there were lots of cops. On the dirt-road towards the parish centre school-children were lined up, waving flags as I drove by.
At the parish centre – Centro Pablo Tesak – were even more buses. And people, everywhere. Mainly young men, but also lots of women, children, babies. I was surprised. San Laureano is a small community – who were all these people? And the young men were pandillero-like – looked like gang-members.
Then they told me: The people were gang-members – from all five gangs of El Salvador – and their families. Also family members of “normal” convicts. They were from Ciudad Delgado and the neighbouring municipals. There were more than a thousand persons, I calculated. And they had shown up to tell the OAS-conference that the truce prevails. That they wanted better conditions for the prisoners.
Amazing. Never before had so many gang-members been together. Peacefully. This was historic.
But I was told there were problems. In the first destination, Ilopango, the OAS-delegation had had problems with the police and couldn´t continue. Neither could the press, or15 busloads of gang-members from all over the country who had also been stopped on the way. By the police.
Finally, a small OAS-delegation showed up. They looked kind of pale. No journalists. The ceremony began immediately. A short intervention of the major of Ciudad Delgado and then the gang-members got the word. A representant of Barrio 18 declared that from now on, all the schools of Ciudad Delgado were definitely peace-zones. School-kids wouldn´t be touched, recruited, nothing.
Marvin from MS-13, in representation of all the gangs and “normal” convicts, in a joint declaration assured that the peace process continued, more weapons were to be handed in, a new peace municipal was on its way. He urged everyone to participate in the elections in February. Then a new peace accord was signed by the representatives of the gangs.
And then it was over, as soon as it had started. The OAS-delegation hurried to their mini-bus and was gone. The different gangs left the area fast and with big discipline. The leaders were busy with cellphones, coordination and logistics, obviously.
Driving back home, I edited a short note in my head. This news had to come out. And this is what BBC – who actually have covered the peace process pretty well, briefly, but soberly – never published:
“El Salvador gang truce continues against all odds
Today the gangs of El Salvador with new force declared that the peace process continues. They asked the Parliament to introduce a new law which permits them to hand in arms legally and they urged all the groups and their family-members to vote in the elections in February.
– Participating in the elections is part of our process of being reinserted into society politically and socially, Marvin from MS-13 and spokesperson for all the gangs, announced. His words were addressed to an audience mainly consisting of about 1000 gang-members from the notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18, as well as smaller gangs and their families.
This was the first time ever that so many gang-members mixed and showed reconciliation. They also made their first public declaration in almost four months.
When the new security minister, Ricardo Perdomo, came into duty in May, he forbade all public declarations from part of the gangs. The peace-process also met other obstacles, one of them being the initiation of the presidential campaign. Norman Quijano from the conservative opposition, ARENA, runs a campaign accusing the governing left-wing FMLN of making pacts with criminals. Perdomo disapproves of the ongoing peace-process and wants to introduce another one, excluding the participation of the gangs.
Killings have risen the past months. According to Raúl Mijango, one of the peace-facilitators, the killings are mainly due to the charged political environment and to the fact that gangs have got fewer opportunities to reach out to the public, to communicate among themselves and with the facilitators.
Stopped by the police
The mass-mobilization took place as part of an event hosted by the OAS, which has supported the peace-process since July 2012. The event, a conference on good practices of peace-processes, included visits to two of the eleven peace zones. They, apart from dramatically reduced homicides, are the most important results of the truce.
In the second peace zone, Ciudad Delgado, a suburb of San Salvador, the gangs and the peace-facilitators had taken the initiative to the big gang-get-together. Buses with gang-members and their families had been mobilized from all over the country, but most of them were stopped by the police. It also seems as if journalists from the local media were denied access to the happening.
Nevertheless, hundreds of gang-members, their families as well as a small part of the OAS-conference welcomed and applauded the announcements of the gang spokesperson.
– This process is slow and has its ups and downs. But it is going to end with the success and the objectives that you (the gangs) are seeking, showing the international community an example, the representative of the General Secretariat of the OEA summed up”.
What actually happened
After all this, I heard what actually had happened in Ilopango, the first municipal. Hundreds of members from MS-13 had welcomed the OAS-delegation. But task-force police forced itself into the area and, among other things, had forced the head of the EU delegation up against a wall. Journalist Paolo Lüers witnessed this and wrote an open letter to the general attorney finishing it with: “This act of machismo that one of your prosecutors led, involuntarily had the opposite effect of what was expected: it shows that peace is possible”.
As far as I know, this is the only thing that has been published in the media about the big and historic gang mobilization of the 20th of September, 2013.