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Last Updated: 03/12/2013
El Salvador’s uncertain path to peace
Angela Smith

Tags: El Salvador, peace process, gangs, rehabilitation, reintegration, ceasefire, sanctuary cities, Catholic Church, decolonizing peace, homicide, conflict transformation.

One year since two rival street gangs initiated a truce that has been both lauded and criticized by Salvadorans, Giovanni Morales, a baker, rehabilitated gang member, and public supporter of the peace process which emerged from the truce was shot and killed outside a church in the barrio of Mejicanos in San Salvador last week. With the help of Father Antonio Rodriguez, priest of the church outside which he was murdered, Morales turned away from gang life and learned a marketable skill, becoming a baker. Featured in a documentary filmed by Al Jazeera in 2011, Morales talked about breaking the pervasive cycle of violence that has made El Salvador notorious and changing a culture that marginalizes and persecutes youth. Opportunity, he said, offers young people an alternative to the violence of a gang culture that had given him and gives countless youths a sense of belonging – of family – in a country where years of civil strife and family breakdown create prime conditions for gangs to thrive. Giovanni, like many who have joined efforts spawned by the gang truce, wanted a better future for his children and for his country.

Giovanni at the Quezaltepeque peace zone ceremony.

Father Rodriguez, “Padre Toño” as he is affectionately dubbed by members of the community, has been a staunch, public critic of the year-long truce even as the country’s murder rate has declined precipitously. He operates the program that helped Morales and others change course: a rehabilitation and reinsertion program for gang members that includes psychological and spiritual counseling and skills training to help participants successfully reintegrate into productive society. Rodriguez has claimed the truce, quietly supported by the FMLN government and brokered with the help of the Catholic Church, does not address root causes of the country’s violence and therefore, is not sustainable.

Following Morales’ murder, Rodriguez made public remarks claiming the killing was an attempt by proponents of the truce to intimidate its critics, namely Rodriguez. Two days later, a clinic associated with his social service program was robbed. Despite lingering questions about whether either crime was sparked by Rodriguez’s public reproach, in a ceremony marking the one year anniversary of the truce, Padre Toño confirmed he will join forces with facilitators, maintaining his doubts about sustainability. Salvadoran newspaper Contra Punto reported Rodriguez said he was not joining with a truce, but rather with the construction of a culture of peace, hoping his critical perspective and experience with reinsertion will be positive contributions.

The narrative of the evolution of this truce is complex and Padre Toño is not alone with his doubts and criticism of the truce which many have claimed awards legitimacy to “criminals”. Mediation and negotiation between incarcerated gang leaders and facilitators have lacked transparency; questions of motives and ethics have been raised. Critics denounce as unethical likely incentives for collaboration, such as a government move last year to transfer imprisoned gang leaders from high security prisons to less restrictive facilities.

The criticisms warrant exploration but what has occurred since the truce’s inception, despite its unorthodoxy, seems to be working if one measure of success is reduction in homicides. Taking a hard look at development of initiatives being led by Fabio Colindres, Catholic Chaplain to the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and former Ministry of Defense advisor, Raúl Mijango, and supported by the Organization of American States, reveals there may be hope for a sustainable peace if peace is, as we have been taught, a process rather than an end in itself.

Peace and conflict expert and author of Decolonizing Peace, Victoria Fontan is among the truce’s critics, “A reduction of homicides is only a truncated vision of peace, one that will come to haunt the FMLN in the future.” Calling the truce “unidimensional”, she argues it only addresses peace in terms of security. The murder of Morales and questions surrounding it, in her opinion, foreshadow more violence and signify corruption.

Clearly, a reduction in homicides is only one measure of success and there is no clear evidence that the truce has had a significant effect on reducing other forms of violent crime such as kidnapping and extortion. But does this negate the value of progress or underscore the concept of peace as a process?

Early this year, a project creating “sanctuary cities” was initiated in four communities with plans to include several more by the end of 2013. “Municipios Libre de Violencia” (violence free communities), is the second stage of the truce and brings together government officials, faith and community leaders, citizens, and businesses to promote and foster an environment of peace. Interestingly, current law deems gang membership illegal and associations with members are risky, yet scores of people have turned out in crowds speckled with the unaffiliated and those marked with tattoos identifying gang loyalties, joining to support the project - the law, ignored and broken openly and without consequence. Gang members are promising to cede violent, criminal activity in the participating communities and those who have often been victims of the violence are eschewing acts that marginalize and persecute the people who have commonly perpetrated violent crime. Cautious optimism is the norm and while some rightfully remain skeptical of the agreement, it is an act of good faith on both sides.

The peace process in El Salvador follows a peace and conflict model that includes crucial elements of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding on a continuum that has the potential to eventually achieve a transformative state. Rodriguez and Fontan both offer an important argument – the truce by itself cannot be the solution to El Salvador’s violent conflict - but its continued success could prove to be an example of what John Paul Lederach might deem a turning point in a process that reflects his theory of Moral Imagination and its necessity in the transformation of violent conflict.

Maybe Padre Toño’s decision to be an active voice in the construction of a culture of peace will be another turning point, as he crosses over with all doubts exposed. As I see it, Giovanni Morales was open to the possibility that a far-fetched, questionable, legally unworkable but in reality, working peace process could be the right path not just for him, but for his country. Padre Toño may still not be so sure, but he’s taking the chance.

What would happen if detractors increasingly, even cautiously, joined the creative, unorthodox path that has emerged? What if the Salvadoran government was to take the chance Morales did and that Padre Toño joins others in taking to advance peace openly and with full disclosure of the uncertainties, doubt, and risk inherent in such an approach to conflict transformation?

The ongoing peace process in El Salvador offers practitioners and students in the field of peace and conflict studies an opportunity to study a valid peace process chock full of historical, social, and political complexity, potential spoilers, and important questions that stem from an obscurity that continues to veil a process of questionable legality, yet operates without notable concern for legal repercussion. It is a fragile process and a rich opportunity for case study and analysis. More importantly, this peace process offers Salvadorans a glimpse of hope with real possibility.

Angela Smith, MA candidate, University for Peace.