Thursday, January 31, 2013

Salvadoran gangs condemn U.S. State Department's travel alert

On January 23rd, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for El Salvador. Given the improving security situation in the country due to a government-mediated gang truce in March, the decision to do so was seen by many as an attempt to discredit the agreement. It was met with condemnation from analysts, El Salvadorian government officials, and particularly from the gang leaders themselves.

The main reason for criticism of the travel warning is essentially a question of timing. 2012 was the least violent year for El Salvador since 2003, yet no warning was issued in 2010 or 2011, some of the most violent years for the country. Also, the crime stats that are used in the warning are from before the truce. It cites the 2011 murder rate of 71 per 100,000, even though the homicide rate dropped 40% following the start of the gang truce in March.

The travel warning does note, “In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate.” However, it questions the truce, noting that the “sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes.”

In response to the warning, El Salvador's Minister of Security, David Mungía Payés, told El Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica, that “the United States could have been misinformed.”

The travel warning also elicited a response from El Salvador's most prominent gang leaders. On January 25th, the heads of several gangs, including the two most powerful, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, released a communiqué to the media criticizing U.S. policy and calling the travel warning an "obstruction" to the truce.

The English translation of the gang leaders' statement is below. For more information on and analysis of the situation, check out The Pan-American Post, Center for Democracy in the Americas and Central American Politics blogs.

Here is the English translation of the gang leaders' statement:

The national spokesmen for the gangs MS-X3, Barrio 18, Mao Mao, Máquina, and Mirada Locos to the Salvadoran people and to the world make it known:

1. That, with the date of January 24, a document released by the Department of State of the United States has circulated in our country and throughout the world containing a “travel alert for El Salvador,” the contents of which paints a frightening image of this country, with which it tries to scare and discourage all those who want to visit it whether for business or pleasure. The information utilized that serves as support in the “alert” is outdated, as it cites figures from 2010-2011. We presume that when the document was written, the U.S. diplomatic headquarters in El Salvador did not make an effort to provide updated information to the Department of State about the country’s new reality, that was transformed in 2012. We resist to accept that it could have been an intentional action inspired by the threat of interests of large U.S. companies that profit from the violent situation that overwhelms the countries in the region, in which they find a large market for the sale of weapons, security systems and all types of technology related to the security strategies promoted by the United States.

2. We understand that a few years ago the Government of the United States subscribed to an agreement of “Partnership for Growth” with El Salvador, which is why this type of publication, which does nothing to help growth and development in El Salvador, surprises us, as it profoundly damages the image of our country, hurts our national dignity and disregards all the efforts that Salvadorans have been making since March 9, 2012 to overcome our most serious problem; a process whose results have surprised the world, as the Salvadorans have not only halted the increase in violence, but have also considerably diminished it, and we are on the road to the recovery of social peace, something that has not happened in the rest of the Western world, including in the United States, where terrifying acts are becoming more and more frequent, like the murder of dozens of children in schools and of young people in universities.

3. We understand the reasons for which the United States has maintained an indifferent attitude toward the truce and peace process, which has been underway in our country since March 9, 2012, and of which the Salvadoran gangs are the protagonists, as an integral part of Salvadoran society as a whole. We respect the position of the United States to express doubt as to its sustainability; nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that this process is already ten months underway and, instead of losing strength, it is gaining strength every day and it is spreading into more territories, making the involvement of many local actors a possibility.

4. We accept that the decision to support the truce and peace process or not is the sovereign decision of the Government of the United States, although from our point of view, it is obligated to do so, since it has co-responsibility as the gang phenomenon was imported from the United States to the region and is fed monthly by the enormous quantity of deportations. If the [United States] supports the process, that help would be welcomed and appreciated by all Salvadorans; and, if not, we ask that it at least not obstruct it, because we as Salvadorans have the right to make our best effort to restore peace, as self-determination of the people is also a human right.

5. To the citizens of other countries that want to travel to El Salvador and get to know its people, its landscapes, enjoy our warm climate and experience the new reality that is developing in our country, we advise you to do so without any kind of fear; the Salvadoran gangs have never been interested in affecting tourists and we inform you that from this moment on we are circulating precise instructions so that your integrity is respected even more from the moment of your arrival to El Salvador, so that your visit may be as secure and pleasant as possible.

6. Finally, on our part we reaffirm that our will is not breaking and that we will continue contributing to the solution of the violence problem in El Salvador. We are more and more convinced that this is the right path for us to continue following; in that order, we notify that although the pertinent legal norms are no longer approved, we will put into effect the commitment to a second voluntary turnover of weapons, which we previously offered.

(This statement was translated by CIP intern Marissa Esthimer)