All Quiet on the Mara Front

Adam Hinton

Since March 2012, a historic truce between El Salvador's two largest gangs - the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 - has led to a dramatic fall in homicides and other violent crime, taking the country off the top of the murder table. As the anniversary approaches the question is, whether the the truce can hold.~~El Salvador has been the second most murderous country in the world for a number of years. Though still overshadowed by Honduras' prolific record in violent death, the violence is usually linked to the vile legacy of a 12 year civil war that ended in 1992 and, more recently, the influx of young men who were deported from the United States for gang related crimes.Between 2001 and 2010, the United States deported 129,726 convicted criminals to Central America. El Salvador had little choice but to absorb a large proportion of them. The country is estimated to have around 64,000 active gang members today.

The two main gangs, or maras, facing off in the poor barrios of San Salvador and other cities, are the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and the Barrio 18 (M18). Both originated in the poor Latino neighbourhoods of Los Angeles in the 1980 samongst young Central Americans who had escaped the incessant warfare in their home countries. When they were expelled from the US, they took their gang allegiances and turf wars with them back home. Nowadays, the maras engage in traditional criminal fare: extortion, drug running, kidnapping and armed robberies. They also have a seemingly insatiable appetite for murdering members of the opposing gang.In March 2012, however, the country was stunned to hear the joint announcement that MS and M18 had agreed on a historic truce. Mediated by a Catholic bishop and a former guerilla fighter turned congressman, the two groups pledged to stop the killing and desist from recruiting new members among the country's desperate and unemployed youths.~~According to Victor Garcia, a M18 member, 'We've been through things that have changed us. It's a waste of life, those who have died in this conflict.'~~Much controversy surrounds the impetus and reasons for the truce. According to Garcia from M18 'we aren't demobilising, we'll always be gangsters but we are quitting crime little by little as long as we can find jobs and a chance to re-enter society.' Cynics, both in the criminal world and in neighbouring countries fighting their own mini-wars against the scourge of the gangs, suspect international drug trafficking rings to be behind the truce since the mayhem was starting to disrupt their supply chains. Still others believe that the government of President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), a former leftist guerilla group that fought the government during the civil war, is paying the maras to keep the peace.~~Whatever the reasons for the truce, the murder rate has more than halved and other violent crime has seen a radical fall as well. As the first anniversary of the truce approaches, Adam Hinton travelled to El Salvador, meeting ordinary Salvadorians whose lives have been affected by the gang warfare and some of the thousands of heavily tattooed gang members serving long sentences in the country's overflowing jails.

 

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      EL SALVADOR

      Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang members smoke marijuana in...

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      Carlos Tiberio Valladares, one of the leaders of the...

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