Between Dialogue and Killing: A Reading on the Process of “Truce” in El Salvador from Anthropological Categories

By Luís Enrique Amaya and Juan José Martínez

Biography Luís Enrique Amaya
Luís Enrique Amaya is an international consultant and researcher in the field of public safety. As academic background, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate alum, he majored in management policies, programs, and projects of citizen security (policy analysis and policy-making process). He has experience in conducting processes of collective construction of strategic and operational plans for public security at regional, national, and local levels.

Captura de pantalla 2016-07-19 a las 11.50.31 a.m.Biography Juan José Martínez
Juan José Martínez d´Aubuisson is a sociocultural anthropologist from Universidad Nacional de El Salvador. He has studied violence and gangs since 2008. He has been a lecturer at Universidad Mónica Herrera and has worked as a consultant for several institutions such as Action on Armed Violence (England), Unicef, Soleterre (Italy) and American University (United States). A prolific writer, Juan José has authored Ver, oír y callar. Un año con la Mara Salvatrucha 13 (Aura Ediciones 2013) and “Las mujeres que nadie amó. Historias de vida de mujeres de las clases subalternas salvadoreñas,” among other academic and press publications.

In this article, the core events that allowed the “truce” in El Salvador are described and briefly explained. There are three stages in this process: “pre-truce”, “truce” and “post-truce”. The stage of “truce” began in March 2012 with the government’s decision of moving thirty gang leaders to lower security level prisons. The “truce” process opened opportunities, as homicides were reduced. The stage of “post-truce” has not yet been completed. After an abrupt closing of the process there was a “boomerang effect” with more violence. This situation would force the social actors to search for other policy options to address this social and criminal phenomenon.

At the beginning of the 1990s, an exodus of people deported from the United States to El Salvador began to develop. At that time, the country was characterized by the end of the civil war, the presence of a highly fragmented society, and the existence of a weak state (or a state in re-composition), among other critical factors[i]

From the perspective of security, an important element was added to that complex situation: the arrival of massive waves of deported gang, or maras, members. Those gangs were (1) the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), which originated in Los Angeles, California, in the late 1970s by young Salvadorans, many of them undocumented immigrants, and 2) Barrio 18, with a Chicano tradition, or Mexican origin, based in the same city since the early 1940s. Both groups flourished in the post-war El Salvador, adding young members of small local (neighborhood and student) gangs and even veterans of the past armed conflicto.

This mixture with local groups transformed the original bands of deported gang members, making it a different organization. While they maintained the same name as their LA version, they started generating autochthonous or criollos values, norms, and characteristic. Both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 have exhibited different developmental, educational, and expansionist processes, which have resulted in both gangs becoming nationwide structures today. The state, meanwhile, has also changed its way of understanding and confronting the maras phenomenon. As important facts, the state approach has moved from ignorance or problem underestimation (and consequently neglecting) at its beginning, through the strongly repressive combat (through the “strong hand” policies of the early 2000s), to the formalization of the “truce” filed in March 2012[i]. In general, we can identify three phases: “pre-truce,” “truce,” and “post-truce.”

In this article, the core events that led to this “truce” are described and briefly explained based on document reviews and conducting interviews with key informants.

 The Stage of “Pre-truce”
Since the beginning of the 2000s, Barrio 18 has transitioned towards a long process of rupture and internal separation into two major factions or subgroups: “Southerners” and “Revolutionaries”[i]. On 20 June 2010, gang members of the Revolutionaries, the most fractious and violent faction in recent years, were mourning a dead comrade who was nicknamed “Crayola.” MS-13 had killed him a day before, in front of his family at his house in the Colonia Jardin, a territory of the municipality of Mejicanos controlled by Barrio 18, within the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador.

Gang members who attended the funeral decided to take revenge that day. They knew that the murderers of Crayola must have come from the area of Montreal, a poor and populous settlement where an MS-13 cell or clica called “Guanacos Criminals Salvatrucha” dominates. Reaching the “enemy” territory would be difficult for the Revolutionaries because it was placed in a hill of difficult access. Instead, they decided to take revenge by attacking the families of rival gang members. They stopped a public transport microbus that was heading to Montreal, assuming that family members of MS-13 members were traveling there. They threatened the driver and forced him to go towards Barrio 18 territory, where they set fire to the vehicle and prevented people from coming out of it. Seventeen people were killed, and several others were seriously injured. This landmark event was considered a “terrorist” act and began a sort of conflict, or pulse, between the Government of El Salvador (GOES) and maras.[i]

Months later, in September 2010, the state saw a coup effect and enacted the Law on Prohibition of Maras, Gangs, Groups, Associations, and Organizations of Criminal Nature, after being approved by the president of the Republic of the time, Mauricio Funes.[i]

At this point, it appears that the state itself was entering, once again, in the scheme of violence or gangs. This had already happened in the past when in October 2003 the Congress endorsed and approved the Anti-Gang Law, proposed by the then-president of the Republic, Francisco Flores[i]. In fact, six months later, in April 2004, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional certain provisions of that law.

With this background, according to Roberto Valencia, who used the crime statistics of the Policía Nacional Civil and population estimates of the Department of Statistics and Census of the Ministry of Economy, 2011 closed with one of the highest homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants to date (see Figure 1).[i]

Figure 1

The Stage of “Truce”
From a historical point of view, the “truce” in fact did not bear on March 2012. In fact, years ago there had been attempts of communication talks between the maras in El Salvador, largely motivated by the widespread perception among their members that the state was becoming “the new enemy.” It was raising some kind of psychosocial dynamics linked to the “construction of the enemy,” a common and shared conviction.[i]

That conviction led to certain symbolic activities that were carried out in a relatively consensual manner. On 3 March 2010 there were two marches, one composed of people close to the MS-13 and the other by supporters of Barrio 18.[i]

The marches were organized by relatives of gang members detained in prisons and were accompanied by their social base. Both demonstrations were heading to the Legislative Assembly and its main demands were related to the improvement of prison conditions, compliance with the Prisons Act, and the withdrawal of the military as custodians of the prisons.

Interviewed sources close to the truce process, point out that there was “no progress, ” that they were deadlocked in late 2011. This makes sense. Both maras and the state were showing their forces. The clearest expressions of this pulse are linked to the attacks on the prison system operators. On 6 September 2011, two custodians of the Penal Center of San Francisco Gotera were murdered. On the thirteenth of the same month, the Director of the Quezaltepeque prison was gunned down. And on 3 December 2011, custodian of the Zacatecoluca Maximum Security Criminal Center was assassinated[i]. The process of the truce began in March of the following year.

 The accepted version says that the truce began formally on 8 March 2012 by the decision of GOES to execute the transfer of gang leaders from a guarded prison in the Zacatecoluca Criminal Center, the only maximum security facility operating in the country[i]. In total, thirty gang members were moved to prisons with lower levels of security[i]. Indeed, that was the “banderillazo” to start the truce.

An important byproduct of this process was verticalization of the gang dynamics. Since its first steps, although the maras attracted many young people, they never constituted perfectly articulated or monolithic structures. Each of the cells (clicas or canchas) had shared the same story, claimed almost the same value system, and practiced a very strong antagonism against the rival gang. Additionally, cells’ members used and reproduced the same system of symbols, slang, and codes of conduct and dress that allowed them to identify with other members. However, they did not seem to have a vertical structure—a committee that would unite and orientate actions of the gang as a whole and, therefore, would mark a collective agenda to develop. In this sense, as T.W. Ward pointed out, most gangs are “highly disorganized”.[i]

That is why, in March 2012, one of the most sensitive aspects for dialogue with spokesmen for such heterogeneous organizations was the issue about the “gang control.” The state, with the help of mediators, had to make a valid gang group of representatives in order to make viable the agreement talks. That would help avoid having to talk to all gangs as a whole. This facilitated (1) the “political dialogue,” which occurred at a high level between historical gang spokespersons, mediators, government representatives, and international officials, and (2) the “operating dialogue,” which happened at the municipal and community scales between local gang leaders and municipality representatives, among others.

Thus, as a sort of second phase of the truce, the initiatives of the “sanctuaries municipalities” was implemented, which then were renamed as “free of violence municipalities”[i]. To do this, initially eleven municipalities were selected whose city halls would promote programs and projects in order to help the process to materialize in each locality. However, eventually this stagnated.

In the opinion of the mayors of those municipalities, the problem laid in that they did not get on their own, nor did the GOES transfer to them, the funds required to ensure the sustainability of their violence-prevention projects, which resulted in them having to deal with expressions of dissatisfaction from maras members.[i] Nevertheless, even the then general secretary of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, reiterated its support for the truce in July 2013[i].

However, the truce process opened opportunities for society, as the number of violent crimes, especially homicides, declined (see Figure 2).[i]

Figure 2

As shown, the projection of homicides behavior was interrupted as a result of the truce. That ought to have led to a window for the GOES to recover its territorial presence through social programs in areas that were inaccessible.[i] However, it appears that this opportunity was not seized as it should have been done.

It is important to note that not all gang members and not all cells agreed with the truce. For example, MS-13 clica “Seven Eleven Locos Salvatrucha” was opposed to the process and, therefore, its members were hardly pressed in the prison system. In the words of a member of the MS-13 during an interview with the authors in the city of Mejicanos:

The truce gives us a f*ck. We accept it because you have to accept it, but as long as we can we will continue doing business as usual. […] Making deals and peace agreements with the chavalas [Barrio 18 gang members] does not make any sense at all.

The Stage of “Post-truce”
The “post-truce” has not yet been completed. It started deteriorating in the early months of 2013 when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling which would have forced the president of the Republic, Mauricio Funes, to appoint a civilian for replacing the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Major General David Munguia Payés[i]. Munguía Payés acknowledged his authorship on the strategy of the truce.[i] Instead, in May 2013, Funes appointed Ricardo Perdomo as Minister; Perdomo had served as director of the State Intelligence Agency.

With Munguía Payés’ substitution, the teams that kept working the truce agreements began to weaken and, thus, global conditions that had made the strategy viable were undermined. For example, the new minister replaced the general director of prisons of the time, Nelson Rauda, for allowing the departure of two gang recognized members to attend a religious event on 29 May 2015. Then Perdomo banned prison mediators from entering the prisons, which was a blow to the process since communication between the spokesmen of the maras and their counterparts in the street became slow and un-operational.

The abrupt closure of the truce heightened the confrontation with the state. In 2015, sixty-four police officers died[i]. The state’s reaction included the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice declaring illegal the “negotiation” with gangs and named them as “terrorists” groups.[i]

By definition, gangs shape their identity through the maintenance of a system of reciprocal assaults against rival groups with similar characteristics. Paraphrasing Wim Savenije, at least in El Salvador, the day when a gang actually defeats the other, it will be immersed in a serious identity crisis.[i] However, with the repressive events of the post-truce, the state, mainly through instances of law enforcement, became a “legitimate” target for gang members. The circumstantial verticalization that caused the truce broke, which expanded the use of violence.

In conclusion, according to estimates of Valencia[i], supplemented by Edwin Segura,[i] the “boomerang effect” predicted by Charles Max Katz and Luís Enrique Amayais already a reality: in 2015 the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants was the highest in the recent history of El Salvador (see Figure 3)[i].

Figure 3

As a prospective analysis, threats can be expected from two angles: (1) from the perspective of the maras—more confrontation with the state, increment of “horizontality” in relations within these groups, violence extension, and probably a “natural” reduction of homicidal violence in the long term; and (2) from the perspective of the state—basically, a possible radicalization of repressive measures. In short, they would be putting together the pieces of a puzzle to avoid the restoration of dialogue or recovery of the truce as an alternative solution of the violence problem caused by gangs. Therefore, the state will be forced to look for other policy options to address this social and criminal phenomenon.


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[i] Aguilar, Jeannette. (2014). La situación de la seguridad y la justicia 2009-2014: entre expectativas de cambio, mano dura militar y treguas pandilleras. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Amaya, Luís Enrique and Martínez, Juan José (2015). Escisión al interior de la pandilla Barrio 18 en El Salvador: Una mirada antropológica. Revista Policía y Seguridad Pública. Year 5, Vol. 1 Pag. 149-178. Page 151. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Martínez, Carlos. (2013). Nosotros ardimos en la buseta. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

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[i] Martín-Baró, Ignacio. (1989). Sistema, Grupo y Poder: Psicología Social desde Centroamérica (II). El Salvador. UCA Editores. (

[i] Arias, Mauro. (2010). Marcha de familiares y pandilleros. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Amaya, Luís Enrique and Juan José Martínez. (2013). “Los sistemas de poder, violencia e identidad al interior de la Mara Salvatrucha 13: Una aproximación desde el sistema penitenciario” in Anuario de investigaciones 2011. Instituto de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación, Universidad Francisco Gavidia. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Martínez, Óscar, Carlos Martínez, Sergio Arauz and Efren Lemus. (2012). Gobierno negoció con pandillas reducción de homicidios. EL Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Ibd.

[i] Ward, T. W. (2012). Gangsters without borders: An ethnography of a Salvadoran street gang. UK: Oxford University Press.

[i] Arbaiza, Gerardo. (2012). “Municipios santuario”, siguiente paso en la Tregua. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Santos, Jessel and Cristian Meléndez. (2013). Alcaldes: municipios “santuarios” estancados. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Rodríguez, Carmen. (2013). OEA reitera apoyo a tregua entre pandillas. La Página. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Katz, Charles Max and Luís Enrique Amaya. (2015). La tregua entre pandillas como una forma de intervención sobre la violencia: implicaciones en políticas y prácticas. Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, San Salvador, El Salvador.  Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Amaya, Luís Enrique. (2012). Oportunidades y amenazas de la “tregua”. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Arauz, Sergio, Carlos Martínez, and José Luís Sanz. (2013). Sala de lo Constitucional ordena salida de los generales que dirigen Seguridad y la Policía. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Martínez, Carlos and José Luís Sanz. (2012). La nueva verdad sobre la Tregua entre pandillas. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] ContraPunto. (2016). Policías asesinados en La Libertad y Ahuachapán. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Rauda Zablah, Nelson. (2015). Sala de lo Constitucional declara ilegal negociación con pandillas y las nombra grupos terroristas. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Savenije, Wim. (2009). Maras y Barras. Pandillas y Violencia Juvenil en los Barrios Marginales de Centroamérica. El Salvador. FLACSO El Salvador. (

[i] Valencia, Roberto. (2015). La Tregua redefinió el mapa de asesinatos de El Salvador. El Faro. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Segura, Edwin. (2016). El Salvador con más homicidios en C. A. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from:

[i] Katz, Charles Max and Luís Enrique Amaya. (2015). La tregua entre pandillas como una forma de intervención sobre la violencia: implicaciones en políticas y prácticas. Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, San Salvador, El Salvador.  Retrieved on March 28th, 2016 from: