The beatification offers the gangs pause for thought, writes Paul Keenan
They are ferocious in both appearance and deed. The thousands-strong gang members of El Salvador, be they affiliated to the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) gang or the equally powerful and vicious Barrio 18 gang, continue to garner headlines at home and abroad for the seeming boundless energies they have for barbaric crimes against all who have not sworn allegiance to their respective organisations. In the small Latin American nation, those bearing the tattoos of gang membership are feared and despised in equal measure.
It came as quite a surprise, therefore, when on April 23, the gangs – including smaller criminal syndicates – issued a joint statement in which they promised to halt all violence and criminal activities for one day, May 23. More surprising yet is the reason.
“This is the gift we wish to make to Archbishop Romero,” the gangs revealed in their statement, “our repentance and request for forgiveness to society for all the damage caused.”
As beatification events get underway, the tattooedhordes of MS13 and Barrio 18 will bring an almost unimaginable 24 hours of tranquillity to the streets of El Salvador, pulling back from a recent drive to slaughter police officers and soldiers after the failure of a short truce.
Though greeted with cynicism in some quarters of a nation worn down by gang violence, the gang’s promise will be welcomed by most. To April 20 of this year, the gangs had been responsible for the killings of no fewer than 20 police officers, six prison guards, six soldiers and one legal prosecutor in their ongoing activities. This is quite aside from the number of slain civilians.
This is not to suggest that the gangs have it all their own way; on April 18, nine gang members were killed in a deadly shoot-out in the city of Zacatecoluca (reportedly bringing to 140 gang members killed since the beginning of March, a month which saw an average 16 murders per day).
A truce agreed between the gangs in 2012 came undone last year, and violence in the tiny nation has begun to spiral out of control once again. Current estimates forecast 5,000 murders by the end of 2015, significantly up on 2014’s tally of 3,942. And while that predicted figure may be corrected ever so slightly to account for the day of peace on May 23, it is still a depressing reality for El Salvador, which has tried both soft and hard tactics to combat the gangs.
When the much-lauded Mano Dura and Zero Tolerance offensives of recent years yielded little in the way of result, the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren in January announced a $2 billion investment in social programmes in the very worst municipalities to offer young people a path away from the gangs’ clutches. Still, after an initial lull, the killings increased.
It is for such reasons that most sections of Salvadoran society remain pessimistic about securing an end to gang violence. Such is the potential reputational damage of suggesting anything other than hard tactics that when the truce of 2012 was secured, the then-President Mauricio Funes, strongly denied that any member of his government had sat down with gang members to negotiate a peace.
The same holds true, sadly, within local Church circles. Until Pope Francis urged an engagement with the gangs, Catholic prelates had shown a similar wariness of becoming publicly embroiled with gang members.
Their reticence appeared to have been borne out, when, having responded warmly to the Pope’s message and to another truce announced by the gangs in January, all fell apart once again in March.
Yet there are compelling reasons to believe that the Church should stay the course urged by the Pope.
The ability of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero to garner a truce day demonstrates clearly a place for the Church in working with gang members towards an enduring peace, many of whom were not even born when the prelate was shot down in 1980.
The fact also that the short-lived January truce between MS13 and Barrio 18 was arranged between the groupings themselves without demanding any form of governmental reward indicates something of a desire for an end to the violence.
These are truths perhaps already known to Bishop Fabio Colindres. The head of the Military Bishopric in El Salvador, it was Bishop Colindres who acted unilaterally in becoming involved in the gang negotiations towards the 2012 truce.
His actions helped secure a peace in which the murder rate went down by 41%, but also served to split the local bishops’ conference, which did not seek to defend him when he was excoriated in the media for daring to engage with violent gang members.
Undaunted, Bishop Colindres continues tireless work with prisoners in El Salvador’s penal system and will no doubt be one of the loudest voices heard by gang members on May 23 as he seeks to build on the moment of peace they will have achieved.
By then his may be a very necessary voice. In a worrying development since the return to violence in March and April, the government has mooted the creation of what are labelled ‘quick reaction battalions’ of troops who will take the fight directly to the gangs in a dramatic upswing of activities against them. The suggestion has worried many who remember the infamous death squads of the 1979-1992 civil war.
While this is a frightening prospect, it is also frustrating. For, even as politicians continue to talk big on the issue of gangs, the gangs themselves accompanied their Romero statement with a 26-point peace plan in an attempt to kick-start negotiations. If deeds follow words on May 23, it can only be hoped the authorities seize the opportunity for a lasting peace.
Though it may not count towards his ultimate canonisation, Archbishop Romero’s reach in bringing peace to his nation – from an initial 24 hours – may yet be seen as something of a miracle.