A Truce in Guatemala?

On Friday, elPeriódico ran a cover story announcing that the Organization of American States has been pressing for a truce between rival gangs in Guatemala. The news is not too surprising since the OAS has been an outspoken supportor of the gang truce in El Salvador from the beginning–even going so far as to formally visit imprisoned gang leaders in that country. Today, several Guatemalan experts and/or important folks (like the president of the chamber of commerce) weighed in on the proposal, most of them expressing caution but some, like Emilio Goubaud, proposing optimism. The trouble is that even in El Salvador, the truce has been enormously controversial, oddly enough, even though police and health ministry officials report that homicides have fallen by 50-60% since the truce went into effect.

Although I have expressed some support for the Salvadoran truce, especially in the beginning, thoughtful people have raised some important questions about that process and the outcomes it has generated. (For example, Jeannette Aguilar has pointed out that in 2011, the year immediately prior to the truce, the Salvadoran police’s own crime statistics office estimated that no more than 26% of the homicides in the country were gang-driven. How a gang truce could cut the homicide rate in half is still an open question.) In addition, a very recent spike in homicides have raised even more doubts in the public.

Personally, I don’t think such issues are reason enough to dismiss the truce or the drop in violence (even if the lasting impact is a homicide reduction closer to 30%). But Guatemalan’s should keep in mind that the gang scene in that country is less organized than in El Salvador. My research in 2007 and 2008 led me to conclude that Guatemalan gangs were only loosely organized. It would surprise me to see a gang truce among Guatemalan gang leaders that could result in a measurable reduction of violence among gang youth at the level of the neighborhood clica. Thus, my advice to political and civil society leaders interested in pursuing a gang truce would be to aim their efforts at the local level and, as always, to provide individual gang members with realistic options for an honorable exit from a violent lifestyle. It may be necessary to have contact with the palabreros (higher-ups) in the gang in order to give local gang leaders and members the courage to move ahead, but the focus should generally be with local cells/clicas and those involved in the process should be individuals who are known in the community.

Finally, the only way a truce–be it local or national–can work is if individual gang leaders and members can have some level of assurance that leaving the gang or its violent lifestyle will not make them easy targets for enemy gangs or for social cleansing. Thus, if the government wants to encourage gang members to leave the gang it must provide some assurance that the killing of gang members will be investigated and that the public ministry will put forth real effort to bring  cases of murdered gang youth to trial. For as long as it continues to be “open season” on gang members or “suspected” gang members (i.e. anyone with a tattoo), and gang deaths continue to go uninvestigated, it will remain difficult to convince gang youth to renounce violence and turn over their weapons. After all, even the most “worn out” gang member knows that leaving the gang and/or its violence involves exposing himself to an angry society. In short, if we want them to stop killing each other, and stop extorting their neighbors, we need to provide them with at least a minimal guarantee of safety and the possibility of legitimate employment.