El Salvador is one of the most violent and murderous countries in the world. And now its government has devised a truly mad plan to combat the problem—by targeting people who have tried to broker peace.
The Central American government last month passed a new law that criminalizes any attempt to "solicit, offer, promote, formulate or negotiate" a truce with the gangs. The crime is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
This month the government took its crackdown on peacemakers a step further by issuing arrest warrants for 21 people who were responsible for spearheading the 2012 gang truce.
"The government is trying to set an example so that no one contemplates dialogue anymore," Paolo Luers, one of the only gang-truce mediators to not get arrested this month, told me in a phone interview from San Salvador. "The government considers the gang issue to be primarily a military problem that has to be resolved by force. So they are trying to disqualify all other alternative solutions. The whole thing is absurd."
The government won't comment on the case, other than to say that their investigation is ongoing.
The 15-month gang truce, which fell apart in May 2013, led to a dramatic but temporary drop in the country's murder rate. Critics complained that the process was rife with corruption and impunity, and argued that the truce helped strengthened the gangs' control over the streets by empowering its leadership behind bars.
Now the government is opting for a military solution while cutting off any possibility for a future ceasefire. In the past two weeks, the government has arrested former police commissioners, prison wardens and chief mediator Raul Mijango for their roles brokering the 2012 gang truce. Mijango was arrested on May 3 and then paraded before a judge in his underwear, as if he too were a gangbanger.
The criminalization of the failed gang truce appears to mark El Salvador's irreversible commitment to a military campaign against the MS-13 and Barrio 18. And if that's the case, the U.S. should brace itself for a new tidal wave of Central American refugees arriving on the Texas border in the months and years ahead.
The swell has already started. Salvadorans fleeing violence are arriving on the U.S. southern border in record numbers. More undocumented Salvadorans have been apprehended in the U.S. during the first half of this year than in all of 2015.
U.S. border patrol numbers show that nearly 10 Salvadorans are apprehended in the U.S. for every 1 Mexican. That's an amazing discrepancy, especially considering that El Salvador is a lot farther away than Mexico and has a population that's 20 times smaller. What's even more disconcerting is that those people could be the frontrunners in what could soon become a much larger exodus.
El Salvador's government defends its "extraordinary security measures" as an early success. They point to public opinion polls and a recent drop in the murder rate as proof that the iron-fisted policy is working.
The gangs, which are extremely violent and run massive extortion rings across the country, are wildly unpopular in El Salvador, where many citizens applaud the government's guns-blazing approach to dealing with the problem.
The gangs, however, say they have declared a unilateral ceasefire and that's the real reason the murder rate is dropping.
"The homicide numbers from the past weeks show that we are men of our word," reads the gangs' last joint communique. "Since we made the decision to suspend all offensive actions, the blood quota has dropped from 24 deaths per day to 11. And most of the dead have been on the side of the gangs since the government, far from suspending its death squad operations of extermination, has only increased."
Despite the continued crackdown, incarcerated gang leaders are allegedly sticking to their unilateral ceasefire in hopes of avoiding an all-out war with the government.
"The gangs' position is: The government invited us to war, and we didn't accept," Luers says.
How long that remains their position is anyone's guess.