SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A tiny Central American country blessed with spectacular natural beauty, El Salvador is now the most dangerous country in the world not engulfed in an ongoing war. Last year, there were 3,942 murders — nearly 11 each day, 57 percent more than in 2013 —a staggering killing rate in a country of only 6.1 million people.
An ambitious five-year plan to curb the shocking violence in El Salvador through prevention and social programs was announced last Thursday, raising genuine hopes of ending the daily horrors after more than a decade of disastrous Mano Dura (Iron Fist) policies.
The $2 billion Safe El Salvador plan promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country's 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country's biggest gangs — Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 — have proliferated over the past decade.
How the 124-point action plan presented by the Council on Citizen Security will be funded is unclear. But, the prevention-focused proposal appears to be the most comprehensive yet to reduce violence since the 1992 peace accords, which ended the bloody 12-year civil war.
There were fears that President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a leftist guerrilla commander in the civil war, would bow to public pressure to impose yet another crackdown on the gangs, accused of causing most of the bloodshed. The most recent spike in murders is blamed on the breakdown of a two-year truce between MS13 and Calle 18.
"The heavy-handed Mano Dura and Zero Tolerance policies have not reduced crime or improved public safety," said Jeanne Rikkers, a violence-prevention analyst from the human rights organization Fespad.
"To see a comprehensive, well-founded security policy with 75 percent of funds allocated to prevention coming from a coalition of mainly conservative groups — which have long resisted a balanced integrated approach to tackling the violence — is incredible."
The scale of the violence is mind-blowing.
In December, 412 people were murdered — double the number killed in December 2013. This particularly bloody month pushed up the 2014 murder rate to 68.6 per 100,000 people, slightly higher than neighbor Honduras.
Yet the conviction rate is only five percent. The criminal justice system — from police to prosecutors and courts — is hampered by endemic corruption, inefficiency and lack of resources.
MS13 and Calle 18 originated as street gangs in eastern Los Angeles, but have become transnational organizations boasting tens of thousands of members and diverse criminal activities across the region.
"The transformation of the gangs is mainly down to Mano Dura and Zero Tolerance policies, which jailed massive numbers of young men who became determined to take revenge on the authorities," said Jose Miguel Cruz, gang researcher and regional director of Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.
The spiraling violence was temporarily reduced after a secretly negotiated truce in 2012 by the Catholic Church and senior officials from the previous government.
It appeared to work like the "interrupters" programs introduced in some US cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, where authorities identified key jailed gang leaders who could de-escalate potentially bloody situations by communicating with members on the outside, Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, told Al Jazeera.
There is no way of resolving the violence in El Salvador and northern triangle of Central America without talking with the gangs.
Jose Miguel Cruz
Gang researcher, Florida International University
The truce provided the first quasi-empirical glimpse into how many killings were in fact down to the two main gangs.
The murder rate halved almost instantly, and there was a palpable change in atmosphere in some communities, as previously terrified families began venturing out into parks and squares after dark for the first time in years.
However, the gangs were then, and still are, loathed by the majority of Salvadorans and vilified by much of the media, with widespread opposition to negotiations.
It wasn't clear what the gangs had negotiated in return for killing fewer people, but there was a public outcry when journalists exposed the transfer of violent gang leaders to low security prisons. They were also accused of taking advantage of the truce to boost extortion rackets and the drug trade.
Cruz opposed the 2012 truce because it was done without follow-up prevention and rehabilitation programs to tackle root causes such as poverty, police brutality, corruption, education, and overcrowded prisons, without which he doesn't believe pacification is possible.
"There is no way of resolving the violence in El Salvador and northern triangle of Central America without talking with the gangs, but only as part of a broad strategy which includes prevention, rehabilitation, demobilization and disarmament. There can never be peace without addressing the deep corruption in the criminal justice system," Cruz said.
It started crumbling at the end of 2013 in the run-up to the presidential elections, when the outgoing FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) government appeared to withdraw its support. Negotiators were pulled out from prisons and a crackdown on mobile phones hindered communication between jailed leaders and foot soldiers – not all of which had been about promoting peace.
New president, new plan
By mid-2014, homicides were back up to pre-truce levels with 14 murders a day in May — he month before Sanchez Ceren took office as the country's second left-wing leader.
He remained vague on the gang issue before and after the election, but appointed religious and business leaders, and politicians from both main political parties to his new Council for Citizen Security.
Their action plan was revealed in front of a striking portrait of El Salvador's most revered martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose assassination in March 1980 by a military death squad tipped the country into full-scale civil war, which left 80,000 people dead.
Sanchez Ceren invoked memories of the war and subsequent peace accords — which he co-signed in Mexico on January 16, 1992 — as he called on the country to unite to resolve the violence.
"I call the entire population to [attend] a great march for peace, justice and in the fight against insecurity, to show and prove to the world that we want and we can build a productive, educated and safe El Salvador," he said.
Measuring the truce in homicides has set a dark and dangerous precedent which needs to be broken.
Co-director, InSight Crime
The Council's progressive plan and president's conciliatory speech came as somewhat of a surprise. In December, the Council persuaded the government to hire former "tough-on-crime" New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant.
Earlier this month, Sanchez Ceren raised further fears of yet another hard-line policy when he unequivocally ruled out negotiating with the gangs. He said the government was obliged to "go after them [and] punish them".
Sanchez Ceren's contradictory messages could well be part of a delicate political dance, as legislative assembly and local mayoral elections take place in March.
During mayoral elections three years ago, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance Part unexpectedly won several FMLN strongholds after the gangs openly said they wanted to punish the government for rejecting dialogue and continued police oppression.
However, the elections also give the gangs, and other criminal groups, an opportunity to use violence to leverage power and force a seat at the negotiating table.
Fifteen people a day were killed in the first 11 days of January, including several police officers.
There is no sign of the carnage letting up. Meanwhile, the government must find the money to start implementing the plan, appease the gangs, and fight elections.
"It does not seem logical to rule out dialogue, but it is not politically palatable when opinion polls show most people are against it," Dudley said. "The problem is gangs have leverage vis-a-vis violence, and measuring the truce in homicides has set a dark and dangerous precedent which needs to be broken."