Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Promising Step Forward in El Salvador (and Hopefully, the World)

Up until March of this year, the tiny Central American state of El Salvador was known to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world every year. A recent State Department study estimated that there were approximately 70 homicides annually per every 100,000 people. This ranking put them in second globally, behind only Honduras – as comparison, the U.S. came in at approximately 4 per 100,000. However, this was all before March, and by most accounts, was due to the overwhelmingly violent gang wars prevalent not only throughout El Salvador, but much of Central America. Two gangs in particular – Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known in the U.S. as MS-13, and Barrio Diesicho, more commonly known as Barrio 18 – had over the decades had recruited armies that at the beginning of 2011 had a comprised 50,000-100,000 soldiers that routinely fought bloody wars on the streets with many innocent casualties.

An MS-13 member.

In March, these two gangs set a hopeful precedent and reached a heroic milestone in setting aside their differences and agreeing to a truce. An article yesterday details the tense meetings, occurring amongst leaders of both sides, all of who are currently imprisoned, as soldiers stood by with unmasked leeriness waiting for things to go sour and fighting to break out. This never happened though, and more surprisingly, the truce has survived over 150 days. Statistically, over the first half of 2012, the Salvadoran government has said that homicides are down 32% and kidnappings a whopping 50%. This is both indicative of the ferocity and strength of these gangs, as well as the optimism this type of a truce brings to other regions of the world.

One such other region is Mexico. Although not necessarily on as quite grand of a scale as the gangs in El Salvador, the drug cartels of Mexico have wreaked havoc on the state for decades. Estimates suggest that since just 2006, over 50,000 people have been killed in the drug wars that former President Felipe Calderón fought so hard to ameliorate. These cartels have much to fight for: the Sinaloa Cartel alone brings in roughly $3 billion annually between their drug sales, kidnapping and extortions. But good business requires “turf,” something the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, the Tijuana Cartel, and several others viciously battle over.

Despite former President Calderón’s best efforts, these drug wars have not slowed. If anything, weeding out the corruption within the government and police force and beginning to crack down on the gangs only escalated the violence. Today, it is uncertain what will be able to successfully alleviate some of the chaos caused by the cartels. The U.S. will always have the market for cocaine, heroin and other major exports of the cartels, and as long as they can continue to reap the small fortunes they generate annually, the violence will not cease.

This is why I am counting on the successful truce in Central America to act as a precedent and as a message to the cartels of Mexico that there is an alternative solution to the endless bloodshed that has become such a commonality of the region. With the assistance of the Salvadoran government, there will be improved prison conditions for gang convicts, better job prospects, and an overall reach towards a better quality of life. It is my hope that with some encouragement from the Mexican government, the drug cartels there will realize the same and begin talks towards a similar truce.

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