May 29, 2013
The two biggest gangs in Honduras publicly agreed to a truce on Tuesday, calling it an effort to reduce the violence that plagues the country and asking for forgiveness and government support. Romulo Emiliani, the Catholic bishop of San Pedro Sula—the world’s most violent city outside a warzone—helped broker the agreement along with Adam Blackwell, a security ambassador for the Organization of American States (OAS). President Pepe Lobo has reportedly said he is prepared “to do whatever is necessary” to back the initiative.
The truce has been compared to a similar agreement between the same transnational gangs in El Salvador, made in March of last year. That country’s government reported a halving of the murder rate after the truce, and a 45 percent drop in the first four months of 2013 compared to the previous year. Despite such pronounced success, in January the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for El Salvador that many (including the gangs themselves) interpreted as an effort to undercut the truce’s effectiveness. Responding to the warning, which referred to outdated murder tallies, the Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Security wondered aloud whether the State Department was misinformed and said the notice demonstrated that for the United States, “street violence, deaths, robberies mostly committed by gang members, that is not their priority—their priority is drug trafficking.”
Some commentators have already questioned whether the latest truce will result in outcomes similar to those seen in El Salvador. These doubts are due in part to the recognition that the police are widely believed to be involved in death squads and the military has been blamed for murders and disappearances, many against land rights and opposition activists. Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce quoted the rector of the National University of Honduras, Julieta Castellanos, as saying “The dynamic of violence in the country goes beyond gangs and reflects the existence of multiple actors that are difficult to pinpoint.” In December Castellanos presented a Violence Observatory report that showed police responsibility for at least 149 violent deaths in the previous 23 months, including the rector’s son, Rafael Alejandro Vargas. Castellanos also voiced concern that the truce could exacerbate the already extraordinary level of impunity in Honduras.
Both gangs emphasized their desire to no longer kill people in society or use extortion as a fund-raising tactic. But at the press conference held by the 18th Street gang, leaders emphasized that gangs are not responsible for much of the crime that is attributed to them. One leader said gangs are used as scapegoats by corrupt police that are in fact carrying out the executions and extortion while also killing many gang members. A statistical analysis by the Violence Observatory attributes only 1.3 percent of murders to gangs.
It is not yet clear how the Obama administration will respond to yesterday’s announcement, even though Lobo—Washington’s close partner—endorsed the truce. The State Department has shown little receptiveness to reforms that run counter to Washington’s insistence on a militarized approach to combatting drug trafficking and crime. Last week, while testifying to the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield defiantly repudiated a new OAS report that merely explores legalization as one scenario for future drug policies in the region. Brownfield said, “The so-called ‘legalization’ issue is a matter of national policy. One international body is not going to dictate legalization, certainly not to the United States of America.”
Note: It is also worth mentioning that Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce linked the gangs’ roots to U.S. policies in previous decades that have continued, including military support for governments and waves of mass deportations:
Both gangs have their roots in Southern California, where young men seeking refuge from Central America’s civil wars formed violent gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and its suburbs in the 1980s. Gang members later deported from the U.S. re-established their violent organizations in their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.