Salvadoran Gang Leaders Assess the Truce

Yesterday’s front page story on is a piece by Sala Negra writers Carlos Martinez and Jose Luis Sanz. And let me say to begin, these guys are really good at what they do. They work hard to get interviews with everyone involved in the Salvadoran gang and crime debate that has so enveloped that nation, especially since the time of the truce (a story they themselves broke). They have discussed the truce with everyone from incarcerated gang leaders to media-savvy (and not so savvy) politicians as well as the priests and pastors who have at times been involved. More importantly, they don’t hesitate to ask their guests the really tough questions. So I was delighted to see that, after a long period of not having access to gang members, the authors once again sat down to discuss the current status of the gang truce first introduced in 2012.

It isn’t necessary (or feasible) to provide a history of the truce here. Elfaro has done a better job than anyone else at chronicling that entirely unexpected, sometimes mystifying series of events during the past two years. Suffice it to say that with the secret blessing of the FMLN administration and the participation of a number of actors, including a Roman Catholic bishop (whose role it would later be argued was largely, though not “merely,” symbolic), a process of negotiation was begun in February 2012 in which some incarcerated gang members were transferred from an overcrowded maximum-security prison to a medium-security prison where face-to-face dialogs were facilitated leading to a “no more killing” pact between the three principal gang organizations. Immediately following the reaching of an “accord,” the homicide rate dropped by about fifty percent. Although there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the truce, the fact the murder rate was cut in half — to about 35 murders per 100,000 residents per year — is not really a matter of debate. Although homicides went up modestly in 2013, they are still far less frequent today than they were in 2011, the last full year before the truce, when they stood at 67/100,000.

Today, with just weeks before the next presidential elections, there are signs that the truce may be nearing an end. The FMLN has essentially backed away from the truce but the gang leaders are arguing that a total abandonment, whether by the FMLN or by the ARENA should that party win, will result in a situation that is at least as deadly, if not more so, than the murder rate of 2011. Many Salvadorans hear in such predictions a veiled threat, and they understandably bristle at the thought of gang leaders holding the population hostage by promising a rise in violence if their demands aren’t met. And yet, as the gang leaders interviewed in today’s piece point out, the gangs have rarely asked for more than that their constitutional rights be respected. Prior to the truce, there were many documented abuses of such rights — such as visitation rights for incarcerated gang members, and the removal of military personnel from prison posts, where, it was argued, they were able to compile information about gang members’ families in order to extort them for money or information.

In yesterday’s Elfaro piece, Martinez and Sanz sit down with leaders of the three groups making up the M-18. Two belong to the “Revolutionary” wing of the M-18 and the other belongs to the Sur, or “main” group. Although these are not the top leaders of the gangs, they are the highest ranking members outside the prison. Also, about half-way through the interview, the loquacious Sergio Mijangos, political architect and chief spokesperson for the truce, can’t help himself and joins the conversation from the sidelines. (We can only assume that his presence was required in order to make the interview happen.)

The interview is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, as the journalists themselves admit, the eloquence of the gang (sub-)leaders is arresting. These guys possess amazingly refined political instincts. They know what to say, and what not to say. One gets the impression that they are not dissembling so much as trying to avoid language that could come back to haunt them, even while they try hard to help outsiders understand their organization. At times though, they are painfully honest, admitting the problems and mistakes of members of their own group with surprising frankness.

Most importantly, the gang leaders are candid about the difficulties they face in trying to reign in the violence of their own members — especially of the youngest members. They openly admit that maintaining “discipline” with regard to the no-killing rule takes enormous time and effort. And, although without saying so in so many words, they allow it to be known that it is with violence that they punish rule-breakers. Essentially, the result of this policy is that when a gang member breaks the no-murder rule, the result will be two homicides rather than one. The journalists press them on this. Are they really claiming to use murder to punish murder and if so, isn’t this a contradiction of their own policy? [A good question to ask the 26 U.S. states that continue to practice capital punishment, I thought.] The leaders reply deftly that they have a variety of means available to them for punishing betrayers of the truce. Thus, they never come out and state their policy of execution for betraying the truce, but neither do they deny it.

What we have here is a fascinating instance of what sociologists call a system of “social control” — but it is neither entirely “legal control” nor merely “informal control.” That is, the gangs have developed mechanisms for exercising social control that follow prescribed (though not necessarily written) rules and punishments. They even allude to the practice of gathering information about a truce violation before making a decision about punishment, much like a court of law. Furthermore, it becomes apparent during the interview that the truce brought new responsibility for the gangs. The sub-leaders argue that many of the street murders that are attributed to the gangs, are not actually conducted by jumped-in gang members. Some are murders committed by high school kids who get drunk and have access to the firearms that are so plentiful in the marginal barrios. (Experience and data tell us that this argument is not fantasy. In Guatemala, the most violent regions of the country are not gang-controlled neighborhoods, and there is good evidence that many of the killings in these places, much like in the streets of Caracas, have to do with personal feuds and vendettas, not merely the drug trade.) However, because even non-gang murders reflect on the gang, the gang leadership must address them, “punishing” in effect even those who are not full-fledged gang members, for violating a truce between the gangs. What we have then is a system in which the gangs are executing justice and promoting crime control in areas where the state’s criminal justice system has practically, if not formally, forfeited that role. This situation might be similar to some immigrant communities in New York City at the turn of the century or in prohibition-era Chicago.

Almost as interesting as this discussion of the gangs’ participation in the execution of justice is the discussion of charging “rent” (extortion) to non-gang members and business owners in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Many Salvadorans are angry that the “truce” has not diminished the practice of extortion, a gang practice that in many ways affects more Salvadorans, and in more direct ways, than the killings between gang members and other barrio youth. The authors ask the gang sub-leaders essentially: “If you can tell gang members not to kill, why don’t you tell them not to extort?” A fair question, to which the Sur sub-leader replies:

For me that would be the correct thing to do. But what kind of answer would I get? At a  minimum [the young homie] is going to ask me if I’ve got a job for him. I’m going to have to tell him, “Hang on a couple of years and the government will have something for you.” He’s going to say to me, “F— you! And what am I supposed to do tomorrow?” These are huge problems. How can it be possible that in two years [since the beginning of the truce] no one has been able to provide the wherewithal to — hell, I don’t know — to say “this is what we’re going to do” in order that the grassroots of our gangs start to feel like if they straighten out, there’s going to be something for them other than just a jail cell. I can hold them back but I’ve also got to offer him something as a person, so that he can start changing from the inside.

This comment struck me as sincere and prescient. The problem of rent-charging (on which the gangs rely for economic survival) is fairly simple and straightforward, though certainly NOT easy to solve. It is always difficult to “create” jobs and match them to the skills, education, and abilities of persons whose socialization has left them outside the formal labor market for most of their lives. There are certainly individuals and organizations working at this task. What’s needed is more political will, and more dedication at every level — the local, the communal, and the national level. Although I am not an expert in the Salvadoran experience nor in the truce per se, the interview left me, again, with the distinct impression that the truce has opened up some space, and bought some time, but that by itself, the truce is far from a “solution.” A lot depends on what happens from here — both in the sense of whether or not the elections bring in a government with the political will to spend sufficiently and wisely on a social problem (urban youth violence with a great deal of gang involvement) that took two decades to evolve and, as a result, will take about as long to effectively address. Meanwhile, individual communities and the religious and civic organizations active in them, can make choices about how they wish to address the violence in their own communities. Because, as we have seen already in the U.S., massive incarceration creates at least as many problems as it “solves.”

Watching (and loving) La Camioneta

Last night I finally watched La Camioneta, a 2012 documentary film about a school bus that travels from Pennsylvania to Guatemala, where it is transformed and outfitted for its second life as a brightly-colored extra-urban bus ferrying mostly indigenous passengers to and from the satellite town of Ciudad Quetzal. Although multiple people had recommended this film to me, it wasn’t until my wife discovered that the film was available for streaming on Netflix that we finally sat down to watch it. Although the film starts a bit slowly, patient viewers will be rewarded with an emotionally moving visual and aural experience that “transports” the audience across two borders and (briefly) back again.

I was prepared for the story of the transformation of a bus. Last year I had a long conversation with a bus driver (during a 3-hour bus ride across the Altiplano) who described to me in great detail the physical transformation undergone by the hundreds of buses brought done to Guatemala every year. Most of them, he said, are overhauled at one of several body shops in Chimaltenango, that armpit of the Panamerican Highway. The bus company owners typically purchase a school bus for about $10,000 at a U.S. auction, put a few thousand dollars into transporting and licensing the bus, and then pump another $25,000 into the physical and mechanical transformation of the unit before putting it to work (typically under the care of the driver who has shown himself the most deserving of a “new” set of wheels). Among the most costly factors involved in such transformations are the elimination of about 10 feet of length — making the bus more amenable to getting around in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz or Chichicastenango — and the replacement of the front hood/cap with a Blue Bird or Harley Davidson hood/cap. This last, very expensive detail, I was told, is simply “pura vanidad” and has no practical payoff other than to make the driver and his ayudante beam the more proudly.

Interestingly however, La Camioneta follows a bus that is transformed by a much smaller outfit than the body shops of Chimaltenango. The film follows a bus that appears to have been purchased by a small-time entrepreneur who immediately sells it (on credit and with only a verbal contract by all appearances) to a young indigenous father from a neighboring rural village who is looking to improve his economic prospects with this very serious investment. Thus, this transformation will not be nearly as substantial nor expensive as that of the typical bus purchased by one of the major bus lines of the Western highlands. In this case the body shop does not slice off the last 20% of the bus, nor do they replace the hood with an expense chromed-out Harley hood. But the pay-off for following this bus rather than a “typical” bus is that we get to see a self-taught artist at work in his make-shift “studio.” The body shop is an open-air outfit on the edge of a corn field and everyone — from the importer, to the painter, to the the buyer are indigenous Mayan young men who have found a way to thrive in a very difficult labor market.

I was surprised and delighted to find that, although the film is ostensibly about buses and the lives of those whose living is tied up with them, the film treats the two major themes of my book with deft and sensitivity. The gangs are a constant concern of bus drivers. We see news footage of the awful bombing of a bus on the San Juan in 2009, and we hear bus drivers speaking worriedly about the dilemmas of their newly dangerous occupation. But we also hear them discussing with an air of matter-of-factness the extortion fees levied by the local gangs. Such matter-of-fact discussions do not diminish the dangers of not paying the gangs — although recently the gangs have reportedly renounced the tactic of killing bus drivers in order to ensure extortion payment — but they do provide hints that in some cases, inhabitants have come to regard the gangs as adolescent neighbors who are more of an annoyance than an insurmountable barrier to conducting business. (I conducted several of my interviews with former gang members in Ciudad Quetzal, the dusty satellite town where much of this documentary is filmed.)

The film also reveals the religious aspect of life in Guatemala and it treats this theme with an equally deft (and ecumenical) touch. In one scene, the purchaser of the bus invites his Pentecostal pastor — accompanied by the pastorawhose Bible and simultaneous prayers exhibit her own spiritual authority — to board the bus and prayerfully invoke God’s blessing on it’s future. In another scene, we see a Catholic priest blessing a parking lot full of decorated buses. And along the way, we see San Cristobal, patron saint of the bus drivers carrying a child on his shoulders. Dodging the opportunity to engage in another round of tired jokes about the irony of the many buses that carry religious symbols and sex symbols side-by-side, the film tries to see the lives of the bus drivers, importers, and body shop artists through the eyes of a curious, but humble outsider.

There is more to say about this gorgeous film. I am tempted to gush about the wisdom of the filmmakers in avoiding the rural versus urban, or the ladino versus indigenous tropes engaged in by too many ideological academics. But instead I can only beseech readers who have not yet seen the film to treat themselves to this film, which is both an outstanding piece of art, and an exceptionally faithful rendering of life in the Guatemala of the 2010s.