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Interview: El Salvador’s Security Minister David Munguía Payés on the Gang Truce and Overall Security

(Image: Roberto Hernández, Escenario Photo & Video)

October 24, 2012

“Comparing last year’s murder rate with that of this year, there are between 1,400 and 1,900 fewer deaths than during the same period last year.”

After a private AS/COA roundtable in El Salvador on security and violence prevention, Minister of Justice and Public Security David Munguía Payés spoke with AS/COA Director of Policy Jason Marczak about the results of the truce negotiated in March between Mara Salvatrucha y M-18 in El Salvador and whether it is a model that could be replicated in Guatemala and Honduras. The minister also discussed the role of the private sector in furthering security along with the importance of strengthening the judicial system: “Anyone who has committed a crime—a murder, extortion, or robbery—has to go to jail.” English translation by Leani Garcia.

Lea la versión original en español.

AS/COA: What is the status of the gang truce negotiated in March of this year?

Minister David Munguía: First, it must be noted that civil society has worked with the Catholic Church to bring about this truce and that the goal was to neutralize the main source of violence in the country which were the gangs. We had discovered through multiple studies that the main source of violence in the country was a war between the gangs.

Since the government’s policy is not to negotiate with criminal groups or gangs, we created a space so that the Catholic Church and civil society could do the work that the government could not do.

This truce has achieved other goals besides the gangs ceasing to kill each other. One of those is that violence has decreased and tensions have been eased in various prisons. Additionally, before the truce, motorists and public bus drivers were killed weekly. We no longer see this. Police officers and members of the armed forces who work in security were killed frequently. We no longer see this. Before the truce students were forcibly recruited in schools, and there was a lot of crime, especially homicides, in our schools. We no longer see this. The gangs created a “peace zone” in the schools; since then, we have not had any deaths there.

The truce here in El Salvador has helped decrease the number of homicides. But it hasn’t only been the truce; we’re aggressively working on violence prevention measures in the neighborhoods where there is a strong gang presence, and we have also strengthened the operational capacity of the National Civil Police.

In just the first five months of the year we had captured more than 20,000 criminals, 90 percent of whom were involved in gangs. To date, we have captured more than 35,000 people. The National Civil Police have achieved great success in breaking criminal structures. When you combine prevention with the control and suppression of crime achieved by the police and add the truce that has decreased gang related violence, you begin to see results.

What are the results? Previously we had an average of 14 deaths a day, now we have an average of five. Comparing last year’s murder rate with that of this year, there are between 1,400 and 1,900 fewer deaths than during the same period last year. I think that this is important for Salvadoran society, and sends a message of security.

AS/COA: The violence in El Salvador is distinct from the violence in Honduras or Guatemala; the gangs are different from the narcotraffickers. Is the gang truce a model that could be replicated in Honduras or Guatemala?

Munguía: I think so, if we take into consideration what you have said about the difference between the crime situation in Guatemala and Honduras. In those countries, most of the violence is due to the fact that drug cartels have moved into Central America as a result of the pressure exerted by the Mexican authorities. Guatemala has been affected the most, then Honduras, and El Salvador to a lesser degree. In El Salvador, where the gangs are territorial and control the territory where they live, they have prevented the drug cartels from establishing themselves.

El Salvador’s peace process can be brought to other countries if you take into account the particularities of our situation. In fact, observers from those countries have come here to see how our process works. One of the interesting things is that gang members from Guatemala and Honduras have come to speak with the mediators from the Catholic Church, with Raúl Mijango [a mediator in the truce], to learn more about this process. Similarly, in the government I have had meetings with the ministers of justice and security and the ministers of government from Honduras and Guatemala. We have explained to them that this process has yielded results in El Salvador.

We’d had 30 years of violence that was continuing on a downward spiral even though we had implemented all sorts of measures—crime suppression, preventative measures, combinations of the two—and we weren’t getting results because in the midst of all of this there was a gang war that had to be stopped. If we did not stop the war, prevention measures would continue to be ineffective.

That is why I say that the truce has been an important factor in decreasing violence in El Salvador. It is not the solution to the violence, but without this truce we wouldn’t find a solution to the violence problem in the country.

AS/COA: We just finished a meeting that focused on collaboration between the public sector and the private sector to decrease violence and boost prevention efforts. What is the role of the private sector, not only in the truce, but also in the government’s security plans?

Munguía: I have spoken about doing two things. First we must try to make sure that the subject of violence isn’t politicized, and that involves both the private sector and civil society. If we can remove the political parties and the politicization of violence from the agenda, I believe that we can move forward.

Another important objective is to give the people hope and to let the people know that the violence in this country does have a solution. The private sector must trust that there is a solution and collaborate with us.  One of the major problems that generates violence is the lack of opportunities for young people, especially in poor neighborhoods. That is where private enterprise can help, by investing and creating jobs in those areas. I think that violence will decrease when these young people have fewer incentives to participate in criminal activities due to them having more opportunities to work and support their families.

AS/COA: Leaving the truce aside, what are the government’s security plans for the next couple of years?

Munguía: We have a strategic plan that addresses policies of justice, security, and violence prevention. The first pillar is crime suppression; the second is prevention measures. We also need to emphasize enforcing criminal sentences as well as rehabilitation and reintegration measures. Another important focus should be caring for the victims of violence. And our last goal has to do with legal and institutional reform.

When you combine all of these measures, you begin to obtain results. We have been working to align all of these interests, but it is also important that the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the other state agencies that form the criminal justice system coordinate and work together. If we do not work together, we will see very few results. It is not enough to capture the criminals and get them off the streets. Anyone who has committed a crime—a murder, extortion, or robbery—has to go to jail. There has to be a justice system that is efficient and that does not create impunity so that those that have committed a crime will pay for it.