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Column 072015 Brewer

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Guerrillas and Gangs and Sham Truce Talks in Latin American

By Jerry Brewer

While truces have come and gone so frequently between Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian government in Bogota, as well as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) criminal gang in Central America, a no nonsense approach now is most certainly warranted.

Colombia has failed to end 50 years of conflict with the guerrillas.  Oddly enough Cubans, known for their decades of revolutionary violence and intervention in other nations, have been hosting truce talks between FARC and Colombian government representatives since November 2012.

MS-13, a violent transnational organized criminal gang that operates in Central America, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S., had its beginnings in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

During that time Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador were in turmoil and conflict with leftist guerrillas pushing communism into their borders. Many Salvadoran families left all behind to flee from the terror and atrocities. Many of the youth settled in the greater Los Angeles area, learned English and turned to crime and gang wars with African Americans and Mexicans for control of criminal turf; and many were incarcerated.

From 2000 to 2004, thousands of convicted gang members were deported to the Northern Triangle area of Central America. Many of them did not speak Spanish, having left El Salvador when they were quite young.  Soon they bonded within their former criminal elements.  

The homicide rate began to escalate rapidly during this deportation process of MS-13 and rival gang Barrio 18 members. Some gang members next moved to Mexico and assimilated with Mexican gangs, as others reentered the U.S. – again illegally – and took up residence in major U.S. cities where they remain today.

Truces with both the FARC guerrillas and MS-13, and the government of El Salvador, have consistently resulted in betrayal and distrust with remnants of a charade in cessation of violence and other hostilities.

In what could be described as a skillfully exploited situation by the FARC, the Colombian government continues to negotiate with the rebels to end a conflict that is believed to have killed more than 200,000 persons, and internally displaced some 3 million people. The battle has been called Latin America’s longest-running war.

There is no doubt that the FARC has taken advantage of previous concessions by the Colombian government, to talk, disarm and seek peace.

Today FARC leaders are continuing to insist on no jail time for their atrocities, plus they want the right to run for political office if they are to demobilize and peacefully reintegrate. Yet they continuously and consistently refuse to disarm.

What is not clear is whether or not the truces represent an overall durable policy option for the Colombian and Salvadoran governments? Many of the concerns involve the thoughts that truces involving violent groups and gangs, and agreement legitimized gangs, reinforce the authority of their leaders, deepen cohesion among their rank and file, and actually increase crime.

While such agreements sometimes tend to bring a temporary drop in violence, they have proven difficult to transform into long-term arrangements. A noticeable example was in 2010, when civil society groups helped mediate a truce between rival gangs in Medellin, Colombia, but the deal fell through after several months, followed by an escalation in violence.

Central America has sustained some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Honduras has been described as the most violent nation in Central America. Much of the violence is attributed to fighting between MS-13 and Barrio 18 transnational gangs with their members throughout Central America, Mexico, and North America. Within the U.S., these gangs are deeply involved in organized criminal activities and they often act as hired muscle for local and international drug trafficking organizations. Additionally, the groups independently engage in a range of criminal endeavors, including extortion and human trafficking.

In the 1990s the FARC, via the leftist Patriotic Union Party, continued to wage war during peace talks with the Colombian government. The Colombian government consistently cited the lack of commitment by the FARC as to the process of talks, while the latter continued its criminal acts.

It eventually became clear that the FARC had much higher political support. At his annual State of the Nation address in the National Assembly, on January 11, 2008, then President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez referred to the FARC as "a real army that occupies territory in Colombia.” Too, Chavez stated that the FARC were not terrorists because they had a political goal.

Further troubling issues with El Salvador arose in a report in 2013, that indicated Jose Luis Merino, a leader of El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftwing political party, “arranged a drug lord’s meeting with the Colombian FARC on a flight coordinated with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.” This alleged new evidence revealed that Venezuelan President Maduro, when serving as Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, “worked to improve the FMLN’s access to drug trafficking."

In April of last year the government of El Salvador announced that the truces between the country's main Mara street gangs had not worked, “and that killings and attacks against police have risen again.”  (Violence is escalating again in El Salvador).

Colombia's FARC guerrillas recently announced a one month unilateral ceasefire for July 20. Perhaps another spin of the wheel?

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Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at www.cjiausa.org.

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