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Youth gangs, El Salvador government in talks to end violence

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 28th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The two main El Salvadoran youth gangs along with the El Salvador government have exchanged the main points they wish to discuss in talks aimed at ending two decades of spiraling criminal violence. However, the media here, including legislators and the public at large remain hostile to making deals with criminal gangs.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The leaders of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, the two gangs in question who are in different prisons, made the initial move, presenting the government of center-left President Mauricio Funes with their list of demands.

The government still rejects the possibility of sitting down to talk with the "maras" or gangs, due to the potential political fallout from an initiative that is not widely accepted.

The Funes Administration however has also provided the gang leaders with its list of proposals to be discussed in what would be the second phase of efforts towards curbing the violence in El Salvador.

The two maras agreed to a ceasefire between themselves and against the police, the military and civilians last March. The number of homicides in this impoverished Central American nation of 6.2 million people, up to then one of the most violent countries in the world, has been drastically reduced: from 12 to 14 a day to five or six.

"We believe the process is moving forward, although there are hurdles, there are obstacles, there are people and entities opposed to it," Carlos Mojica, the leader of one of the two factions of Barrio 18. Mojica is taking part in the preliminary, indirect negotiations with the government from a prison near the capital where he is doing time.

The gangs first emerged in the U.S., created by Salvadoran refugees fleeing the 1980-1992 civil war. With the deportation of many gang members, they began to recruit youngsters living in the slums in El Salvador. The maras grew into violent organizations dedicated to extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

The media and the legislature both play a key role when it comes to accepting proposals set forth by the gangs.

The El Salvadoran government's role in the truce between the two maras is not clear, but it was generally understood to have acted as a facilitator. Some gang leaders were transferred to medium-security prisons last March, a move that analysts saw as part of the process that gave rise to an agreement.

Some of the maras' proposals include parole for inmates who are suffering from terminal illnesses or are over 65 years old.

"Look what they are asking for: changing the laws. That shows the power achieved by these groups," analyst Dagoberto Gutiérrez says.

According to official estimates, there are some 60,000 gang members in El Salvador, not counting the 10,000 who are in prison.

A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.

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