Jan 28, 2014 | 11:02 GMT

3 mins read

El Salvador's Durable Gang Truce

(Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images)

El Salvador holds a presidential election Feb. 2 in which gang violence and a truce between the country's two main criminal organizations, Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, has become a central campaign issue. The cease-fire, however, depends little on the government. It will last as long as both groups see more benefits to cooperation than to conflict, despite the Salvadoran opposition's heated political rhetoric claiming otherwise.

Norman Quijano, the presidential candidate for the right-wing opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance, said Jan. 21 that he would declare a state of emergency to target the gangs, and he has repeatedly stated his opposition to the truce the gangs reached in March 2012. Quijano's statements reflect his party's previous strategy toward the gangs, involving mass arrests and a refusal to negotiate with gang leaders. Meanwhile, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the candidate from the ruling left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, continues to support the cease-fire.

The truce offered a rare opportunity to reduce killings in one of the world's most violent regions. A period of political violence between the late 1970s and early 1990s caused a surge in Salvadoran emigration, particularly to the United States. (Violence remains a major driver of emigration today.) Salvadorans deported from the United States for criminal offenses subsequently brought their gang culture to El Salvador.

El Salvador map

El Salvador map

Violence plummeted after the truce, which provided for the gangs to stop killing in exchange for the transfer of 30 gang leaders to lower security prisons in March 2012. Murders dropped from about 4,300 in 2011 to about 2,500 in 2012. But the pact, which focused exclusively on reducing gang-on-gang murders, did not address other crimes such as extortion and kidnapping.

Extortion, often carried out from prison, has long been a principal source of income for the gangs. The truce relaxed restrictions on the entry of items into the prisons, and gang leaders were reportedly allowed to travel freely between jails. These factors allowed both Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 to consolidate their extortion activities. The drop in homicides following the truce indicates that imprisoned gang leaders hold significant control over their followers. Neither gang has any incentive to break the truce at present, since doing so could disrupt their profits from extortion, drug dealing and kidnapping.

However, two factors could cause the gangs to breach the truce. First, the gangs could see a need to fight for control over the lucrative extortion racket. Second, the gangs are mostly a loose organization of criminal organizations, known as cliques, which are bound only by a shared name and identity. The imprisoned leaders do not have complete control over all such groups, so individual cliques dissatisfied with their revenues could resume turf wars, regardless of directives from above.

Still, despite periodic increases in homicides, the cease-fire will likely endure so long as it remains lucrative to the gangs. Even a withdrawal of government support for the truce might not end it — a phenomenon seen elsewhere in Latin America. El Salvador's period of lowered murders could therefore last for years, depending on the level of criminal competition between the gangs.

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