The historic truce between El Salvador’s powerful and violent street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Barrio 18 has lasted nearly one year. During that time homicides have been reduced from 14 per day before March 8th, 2012 to about five per day in December. El Salvador is no longer the second most violent country in the world. Despite the remarkable advances in reducing violence, on January 23rd the State Department unexpectedly issued a travel warning to “inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in El Salvador, putting it on equal footing with countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Honduras and Mexico.
The truce has not ended all crime and violence. Further, there are ongoing concerns among long-suffering Salvadorans that it lacks sustainability or is simply a ploy with other nefarious motivations. In spite of the concerns and doubts, and the often volatile situation created by dissident gang members, the truce has evolved into a peace process that now includes two “violence-free municipalities”, the participation of smaller gangs and a commitment to surrender weapons. The OAS, International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Vatican have supported the process and the country’s major political parties recently agreed to endorse it, thus guaranteeing that the truce does not become a political football during the 2014 presidential election campaign.
The U.S., however, continues to be a critical observer. In October, the U.S. Treasury Department surprised Salvadoran officials by designating Mara Salvatrucha as a violent transnational criminal organization on a par with the Mexican Zetas, Japan’s Yakuza, and the Italian Comorro. There is no denying the scope of MS criminal activities in the U.S. and Central America, but there is also no evidence that the dispersed gang, comprised of impoverished, unemployed and poorly educated youth even approaches the resources and criminal capacity of the powerful organizations on the list.
The timing of the January 23rd travel warning is curious. No such warnings were issued during the height of the violence in 2010 and 2011. The past year, 2012 was the least violent since 2003. The “Security Message for U.S. Citizens” acknowledges that the truce “contributed to a decline in the homicide rate” but questions its sustainability and says it has had “little impact” on other crimes. U.S. citizens are warned to be vigilant and “travel in groups of two or more.”
The crime statistics cited in the warning are from the pre-truce era and while the document says U.S. citizens “do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality,” it goes on to cite provocative data that 22 U.S. citizens have been murdered since January 2010. The information is slightly misleading; most of the victims were Salvadoran, naturalized U.S. citizens who, according to the Minister of Security had some relationship to or problem with gangs.
Minister of Security David Munguía Payés has promoted and facilitated the truce strategy since his appointment in November 2011, putting his career on the line for a very risky policy without the full public endorsement of President Funes. The travel warning “surprised me,” he told reporters, “it is strange that in the two previous years when we had 12-14 homicides per day the U.S. did not issue an alert.” The U.S. could be “badly informed” about the current situation, he suggested. Salvadorans are the victims of the violence “and it is not their priority, the priority is drug trafficking.”
The U.S. Embassy has consistently maintained a skeptical posture toward the truce. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte reiterated that position following the announcement of the travel warning but said her government is committed to supporting “long-term programs for at-risk youth” as part of the Partnership for Growth initiative.
The great objective of the Partnership for Growth is to overcome obstacles to development of the struggling economy. A travel warning issued at this time may have a broader, as-yet unstated political objective for the U.S., but it only hinders the goal of encouraging much-needed foreign and domestic investment. To be sure, assessing the security conditions in travel destinations for American citizens is an important role of the U.S. government. But, the evolving peace process merits the full support and encouragement of the international community, including the United States, because it is making El Salvador safer for its citizens, visitors, and potential investors alike.