The truce was born as a socially illegitimate child. But evidence of its dramatic and sustained impact on levels of violence, and a better understanding of its nature, gradually stimulated its popular legitimisation within Salvadoran society. Public perceptions started to change, giving way to some degree of re-positioning even among its most fervent opponents.
The government, first of all, was able to acknowledge its involvement, committing full institutional support to implementation of the truce – although actual delivery of support proved to be less forthcoming. Civil society organisations regained trust in the process as they started to understand its goals and intentions, and the role they would need to play in implementation, which was conceived along the principles of social integration and prevention that many of them had long been advocating.
Law and order hardliners found their mano dura arguments were beginning to lose traction given the evidence of less violent streets and – for those within government – the now explicit presidential support. The opposition parties, even in the context of the campaign for general elections in February 2014, were forced to tone down their criticism and develop ambiguous doublespeak in order not to alienate voters who had already begun to feel the positive effect of the truce.
This process of social legitimisation was gradual but sustained. The presidential nod to the international community in June 2012 enabled the OAS to publicly support the mediation effort as early as July 2012, engaging as a guarantor of the pacification process. In September – the month the CTC was established – three smaller gangs (La Máquina, Mirada Locos and Mao-Mao) and two prisoners’ associations (Raza and MD) – also adhered to the truce. El Salvador’s famously unruly and violent jails became more stable and in October the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) established a special mission in El Salvador to monitor human rights conditions in prisons.
Interpeace, a peacebuilding organisation operating on youth violence prevention in El Salvador, engaged in the process from August 2012 providing strategic advice and technical assistance to the mediators. In November, the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace – an ecumenical initiative of Catholic and Protestant priests – publicly expressed its support to the truce and the pacification process associated with it. A group of businesspeople established the Humanitarian Foundation to generate opportunities for gainful employment and social reintegration for youths at risk and for “pacified” gang members.
The truce process has been able to progress and accrue legitimacy despite considerable challenges. The government’s initial tactical distance had led to an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty that affected even the capacity of its own agencies to support the effort. Salvadorian public institutions are weak in terms of technical capacity, resources and internal coordination. The relative autonomy of some public institutions – de jure autonomy as with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, or de facto autonomy as with some security sector officials who choose to ignore instructions – added to incoherent and contradictory actions. In May 2013 a Supreme Court ruling led to Minister Munguía being replaced by Ricardo Perdomo, whose support for the truce process can be described as timid at best. And electoral calculations might be behind the less enthusiastic tone of President Funes in the latter part of 2013.
The fact that the truce has held for over 18 months shows that the jailed gang leaders carry sufficient legitimacy to speak on behalf of their affiliates and sufficient authority to ensure a level of compliance to its terms. Homicide rates, though, have been rising at the time of writing in late 2013, with many pointing fingers to the gangs. Gang leaders’ authority can only be sustained if their decisions deliver answers to the needs and aspirations of their brethren in the streets: freedom from aggression and alternative livelihoods. To ensure such deliverables there is a need to enrol collaboration and support from not only governmental institutions – whose capacity to engender the necessary conditions for peaceful and gainful reintegration is limited – but from society at large.
Reaching out to civil society has always been a clear goal of the process, both to legitimise the effort in the face of criticism, as well as to enrol actors whose collaboration is needed to develop the conditions for gainful and peaceful reintegration. The support of the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace and of the Humanitarian Foundation were important achievements in this respect, but hardly sufficient. More broadly, the attitudes of the Catholic Church and the private sector have remained either critical or suspicious of the process, which is a big impediment to legitimisation. Civil society support would need to be much stronger to really embed the process socially.
By the end of 2012 the mediators realised that the truce process was in danger of stalling due to unresolved internal contradictions in government, a problem that would only become more acute as political campaigning for the general elections started in 2013. The precarious legitimacy achieved so far was at risk.