The United States will hand over $91.2 million to El Salvador in funding to bump up the Central American nation’s fledgling security system, but has said that the money has nothing to do with the Salvadoran gang truce.
The Spanish news agency EFE reported that the funding will be divvied up between reinforcing the Salvadoran judicial system, improving educational opportunities inside and outside schools, community crime prevention and a program called SolucionES, which hopes to keep young people away from gang life. SolucionES will receive an additional $20 million in private donations.
The money is part of the bilateral Association for Growth agreement the U.S. signed with El Salvador in 2011. The agreement aims to “overcome the obstacles slowing economic growth" in El Salvador, which sees its security situation as one of the main hurdles.
The announcement of the funding having anything to do with the gang truce has raised concerns among some analysts that it may undermine the gang truce and imply that the U.S. does not support the move.
“Since gang leaders negotiated their agreement, the U.S. has designated MS-13 a transnational criminal organization (and more recently added six Mara leaders to an economic sanctions list), issued a travel warning against El Salvador, and said 'no' to government officials who have travelled to Washington DC to request funds for the the process,” wrote Mirim Wells of the Latin American security website Insight Crime. “While the U.S. has not explicitly criticized the truce, such actions hardly amount to an endorsement.”
The gang truce in El Salvador, however, has sparked a similar measure in neighboring Honduras, where two Salvadorans who worked on their country's truce met Monday with gang leaders in Honduras, where they will help do the same.
El Salvador's chief army and police chaplain, Monsignor Fabio Colindres, and former guerrilla fighter Raul Mijango talked inside the San Pedro Sula prison with leaders of Honduras' 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs. Those gangs also dominate criminal activity in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Members of the Organization of American States are also participating in the negotiations to secure a truce with the government in Honduras, which is often called the most dangerous country in the world.
"The Salvadorans mediators have come expressly to support this effort, to convey their experiences and offer support, taking into account the context of violence in Honduras is different from El Salvador," said Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliani of San Pedro Sula, who began mediating a gang truce eight months ago.
According to reports from public security authorities, the 15-month-old truce in El Salvador has been accompanied by a 52 percent decrease in homicides.
Monsignor Colindres said that the point of Monday's meeting was "to convey that the Salvadoran experience is valid for the region and that it's urgent to find a regional effort (to stop gang violence) that also includes Guatemala."
A leader of the 18th Street gang said it has already done its part, telling members in the areas the gang controls to stop the violence and crime. The gang leader, who agreed to speak only if not quoted by name because he feared possible reprisals, estimated crime has already dropped 80 percent in those areas.
A member of the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang who would only identify himself as "Marco" said violence in the areas that gang controls has dropped 45 percent.
It was not possible to verify their claims.
Marco said the gang's first gesture of reconciliation with society was "the delivery of 60 beds made with our own hands to a nursing home in San Pedro Sula."
"We want this example of working in carpentry to be repeated on the streets so that through job opportunities we can bring peace to our youth," he added.
Gang members asked the OAS for help in getting a peace agreement with the Honduran government. They also asked the organization for help in securing resources that would allow them to leave their criminal activities and engage in legitimate jobs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.