El Salvador: New Government, New Opportunity for Peace?

On June 1st, El Salvador's former insurgents, the FMLN, will see its candidate, President-Elect Sánchez Cerén, sworn into office following a peaceful transition. But, he will immediately face a deeply difficult problem. More than 20 years after its brutal civil war ended, El Salvador remained a violent country convulsed by a culture of gang violence, until a controversial 2012 truce between the gangs dramatically lowered the national homicide rate. Today, however, that pact is about to disintegrate. Sánchez Cerén must act soon to strengthen the truce before the increasing violence spirals out of control. Because of its complex history of involvement in the country, the U.S. government is well-placed to help.

Civil wars like the one that tore El Salvador apart in the 1980s and '90s create the conditions for never-ending violence by arming the population, destroying infrastructure, traumatizing millions and wrecking the economy. For the past three decades, El Salvador's impoverished young men have had few choices. Now, with 33% of 19-24 year old males unemployed and out of school, the facts are simple: they can either emigrate or get drafted into the gangs just as they were by the armed forces during the civil war.

Before the truce, gang violence affected a large segment of the population, and iron-fisted government policies led to the imprisonment of over 10,000 gang members, where they subsisted in horrific conditions. Exhausted by violence and seeking a different life for their children, gang leaders negotiated a truce, and El Salvador's government under President Mauricio Funes launched "an intelligent strategy" to support their agreement. After the truce took effect in March 2012, the homicide rate immediately plunged by over 50 percent and continued to drop.

In June, 2013, however, the government appointed new members to its security team hostile to the truce. Promises of assistance to communities participating in the peace process were broken, and imprisoned gang leaders began losing control of their members. Killings - most between gangs - escalated again.

El Salvador, long plagued by poverty and in desperate need of aid, faced a dilemma. U.S. foreign policy prohibits negotiations between a government and a criminal organization, and Washington condemned the truce. USAID, our nation's development agency, therefore confined its multimillion-dollar violence prevention programs in El Salvador to non-gang members. In other words, the programs would only be funded if they excluded the people who needed them most.

Faced by this policy paradox, President Funes' support wavered, and the truce has been on again, off-again ever since.

The imminent collapse of the truce will be disastrous for El Salvador. The pact gave voice to neglected communities where the government had de facto relinquished control. Treated as social pariahs, groups of young men fought each other for territory and used extortion in their own communities for survival. While it is a fact that the truce has not adequately addressed extortion, it is also true that 2013 was El Salvador's least violent year in a decade.

Since January 2013, eleven municipalities have signed on to a "violence free municipality" initiative with an agreement among local officials, religious and community leaders, and the gangs. With international support from the EU and the Organization of American States (OAS), local groups have established small businesses that do not exclude gang-affiliated youth. As the initiative grows, however, resources are needed to create jobs and to expand investments in education, health care, successful community policing programs, and public works. While vital, the support of the EU and the OAS is not enough.

The foremost lesson here is commitment. Establishing peace in high-risk communities requires a reliable commitment from everyone; meaning, the government cannot provide support one year that is withdrawn the next, nor should U.S violence prevention programs exclude those whose lives are most affected by violence.

To build a true peace, it is time for a bold and imaginative strategy and for the governments in the United States and El Salvador to act with political courage now. The U.S. must adapt its well-intentioned but rigid parameters for assistance to the realities of El Salvador, and President-Elect Sánchez Cerén must moderate his recent refusal to "dialogue" with gangs.

It can be done. If former FMLN insurgents could adjust to civilian political life - including running for election and winning the presidency - after the United Nations brokered El Salvador's 1992 peace agreement, gang members should be given this chance to normalize their lives too.

The groundwork has been laid. Beginning June 1st the new FMLN government has a five-year term to continue El Salvador's transformation from one of the most violent countries in the world to a peaceful nation that offers its youth more than the choice between emigration or a short, brutish life of crime. It is also in the interest of the U.S. to reduce Salvadoran emigration and guarantee regional security: Supporting dialogue with "criminals" seems a small price to pay.

Co-authored by Linda Garrett, CDA's senior policy analyst on El Salvador