Victor Garcia, alias “The Duck,” at 39 has survived longer than most gang members in El Salvador, and has seen hundreds of his “homies” killed by rivals over the years.
The relentless tit-for-tat murders between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs — Calle 18 and Mara Salvatrucha — made the country the most murderous in the world last year after neighboring Honduras, also ravaged by gang violence.
That was until Garcia, from the Calle 18 (“18th Street”) gang, along with elders from the Mara Salvatrucha declared an unprecedented truce that authorities say has cut the homicide rate in half in just four months.
“We’ve been through things that have changed us. It is a waste of life, those who have died in this conflict,” said Garcia, a tattoo of a skeleton hand clutching his shaved head.
Formed in the 1980s in the US by Central American immigrants, many refugees from the region’s civil wars, the gangs or maras grew into an international franchise when criminals were deported back home.
They have grown dramatically in the last two decades and El Salvador alone has an estimated 64,000 gang members. Branches operate across Central America and in at least 42 states in the US.
The gangs deal drugs, run prostitution rings and protection rackets and carry out armed robberies. Many gang members cover their faces and bodies with menacing tattoos to prove their lifelong commitment. The turf wars are brutal, with gangs often targeting their rivals’ family members.
Tired of the cycle of revenge killings, gang leaders housed side-by-side with their enemies in a maximum security prison outside the capital of San Salvador decided to broker a deal.
Garcia from the Calle 18 gang and Aristides Umanzor, aka “El Sirra,” from the Mara Salvatrucha — each backed up by 15 of their top lieutenants — sought out a Catholic bishop and a former leftist congressman to serve as mediators.
In March, they surprised the country by releasing a joint statement declaring an end to violence and pledging to freeze recruitment of new adolescent members, especially in poor neighborhoods and around schools.
Since then, the change has been dramatic. Murder rates are down to around five a day from more than a dozen before the pact. On April 14, El Salvador recorded its first day in three years without a single murder.
“We aren’t demobilizing, we’ll always be gangsters,” Garcia said from a prison in Quezaltepeque where he is serving out a 28-year sentence. “But we are quitting crime little by little as long as we can find jobs and a chance to re-enter society.”
Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes, a leftist, insists his government did not cut any deals with the gangsters, but shortly before the truce was made public, 30 top gang leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to others with benefits like family visits. Garcia was transferred to Quezaltepeque, where prisoners enjoy some modest freedoms, although he still lives with 15 other men in a cell designed for six.
The government has lauded the truce and is trying to help its long-term success by working with business leaders to offer work and rehabilitation programs for gang members.
It is a policy U-turn from the “iron fist” tactics used against the gangs for years in Central America. Under Funes’ conservative predecessor, teenagers could be arrested just for sporting gang tattoos without having committed any crime, filling the jails to dangerous levels.