El Salvador's Streets Safer, Thanks To Gang Truce

El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. But police say murders have been cut in half since March. That's when a former guerilla and a catholic bishop brokered a truce between two of the country's most violent gangs. Guest host Maria Hinojosa talks with Alex Sanchez, a former gang member, and director of the gang intervention group Homies Unidos. Hinojosa is also joined by Carlos Dada, editor of an online newspaper in El Salvador.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

I'm Maria Hinojosa and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we head to the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee where old questions of racial identity are getting some surprising new answers.

But first, let's take a look at efforts to stop gang violence in El Salvador. The Central American country has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but police say the number of killings has been cut in half since March. That's when the country's two biggest rival gangs agreed to a truce brokered by a former gorilla commander and a Catholic bishop.

Not many people were optimistic about the truce between Mara Salvatrucha - or MS-13 - and Barrio Diesiocho, also known as the 18th Street Gang. But it's now been nearly 150 days since they decided to stop fighting.

To find out more, we're speaking with Alex Sanchez. He's a former member of MS-13, but he now serves as the director of Homies Unidos. That's a Los Angeles-based organization that works with gangs to curb violence. He joins us from our NPR bureau in Culver City, California.

We're also calling on Carlos Dada. He's the editor of Elfaro. That's the online newspaper in El Salvador that originally broke the news that MS-13 and 18th Street Gang made a truce. He joins us from the capital, San Salvador.

Thank you, both of you, for joining us.

ALEX SANCHEZ: Thank you for having us.

CARLOS DADA: Hi.

HINOJOSA: So, Carlos, can you just give us a sense - you're in the capital, San Salvador. How does it feel now? Do you actually feel like something has changed since this gang truce went into effect?

DADA: Yes. That's a good question because a lot of it deals with perception. I haven't seen any polls yet, but there are some facts, and it is a fact that the murder rates have actually lowered more than half by now. That is a fact. It is a fact that there is less violence in the communities usually controlled by the gangs. It is a fact that people living on those communities are feeling much safer now that the gangs have declared that they won't be recruiting kids anymore and that they are not killing themselves anymore. So, yes, there is a big change, especially among those communities controlled usually by the gangs.

HINOJOSA: So, Alex, you were once a gang member yourself. You served time. Now, you're doing activism with Homies Unidos. But what's your sense of a truce like this, having been inside a gang? How does a truce like this actually operate down to the level of gang member?

SANCHEZ: Well, when the leadership of a gang calls a truce, for the most part, everybody has to kind of follow along with it. There are some inner struggles in regards of, you know, the ideology of the gang before and now it's being changed, the fact that you're going to be meeting with enemies that you were fighting with before.

So it takes a lot in regards to the leadership to be able to convince the lower rank of gang members to follow those steps, and I think that that's important when a truce comes in.

HINOJOSA: Alex, I have heard stories that hardened gang members tattooed almost everywhere on their body, kids who have shot, stabbed, done horrible things are having these kind of enquentros, where - you know, these moments where they're breaking down in tears and hugging their former enemies. You know, when you hear these stories, does that sound like it can actually be happening?

SANCHEZ: Yes. There's been a few historical moments, even in Los Angeles, where truce have broken and this is exactly what happened. Gang members in the neighborhoods don't really want to be doing the things that they're doing, but there really - there is no resources, no outlet for these kids to address the issues that they're involved in. So, once there is a space - once something is created for them to kind of think about the things that they're doing and there is some activity around the issue as an alternative, they break down.

Violence hurts everybody. They are also victims of this violence themselves.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. We're talking about the ongoing gang truce in El Salvador. With us is Elfaro editor, Carlos Dada, and we're joined by Homies Unidos director, Alex Sanchez.

Carlos, the Catholic Church was involved in brokering the truce. There have been conflicting reports, though, about what role the government has played. This is a government from the leftist - you know, formerly guerillas of the FMLN. So what can you tell us about what the government is saying that it's doing and what the government is actually doing with this truce?

DADA: Well, yes. It is a government formed by former guerillas, but curiously enough, the minister of security is not a former guerilla, but a former military. He's a general. The government has, so far, denied that this was a negotiation and of course this is a political thing. I don't think any democratic government could easily go public, saying, we are negotiating with a criminal organization.

So they have gone so far as to say that they supervised the whole process all along and that they facilitated the dialog between the bishops, these so-called representatives of civil society that was there, also. And the truce broken by the gangs, but actually - yes. The government was not only pretty much involved, but an active player in this new moment.

I have to tell you, Maria, that I'm really curious and especially now that Alex is on the other side of the line - because what we're seeing is only in El Salvador, but the gangs' original (unintelligible), and so I'm still wondering what the perception of the gangs in other countries that are actually also Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio Diesiocho about this truce.

HINOJOSA: All right. So you're really talking about a regional gang truce. Alex, is that at all possible? Some kind of a regional gang truce?

SANCHEZ: Well, we were contacted by the leadership of those gangs from El Salvador to help in being advisors to this process and one of the things that - my first question was, well, what - have you spoken to your local chapters in Los Angeles about this? And they literally said, no. This is an issue that affects us in El Salvador and we're going to do it our way here because it impacts us.

So, right now, we feel that what the Mala and Honduras in regards to the same level of violence that El Salvador has in regards to the gang problem are really looking at this issue and seeing how the government - how society - how other groups, even international investors are going to deal with this.

And it might spill over to those places and that's one unique thing that's happening right here. I know that the government in El Salvador says that, basically, they support this humanitarian approach that the monsignor in the Catholic Church is doing. And I think that that is critical. So we're just waiting. There's a lot of optimism, you know, in regards to the processes, how it's going. So, there's yet to see how much investment they want to do in regards of the reentry prevention and other jobs that needs to take place now.

HINOJOSA: Carlos, just finally, there's a lot of skepticism about this kind of stuff, but do you think that this gang truce will actually hold?

DADA: We'll hope it will hold. To be honest with you, Maria, we are all very surprised by how long this has been holding so far. We were expecting - to be honest to you - that the truce was going to be broken three months after it started.

There is now big hopes that this will keep going, of course, but that doesn't mean we're not - I mean, we're very worried about other aspects of these negotiations. Like, for example, in order to do this, the minister of security has already tackled - let's call it a parallel team of people that are not part of the institutionality that are dealing with this matter. And for a democratically weak country like El Salvador is, we don't like any parallel teams of people working outside of the state, but taking decisions for the state. And this is what's happening, so these are the part that worry us.

But I believe that, still, the main aspect to be regarded on this situation is that the alarmingly high murder rates in El Salvador has decreased significantly in the last 150 days and this is actually a really successful thing for everybody.

HINOJOSA: Carlos Dada is an editor at the online magazine, Elfaro. And Alex Sanchez is the director of Homies Unidos. That's a gang intervention group in Los Angeles.

Thank you to both of you for joining us.

DADA: Thank you, Maria.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

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