June 2, 2013

THOUGH THEIR civil wars ended long ago, Central American countries remain among the most violent in the world. In 2011, according to the United Nations, Honduras had the highest national murder rate — 91.6 killings per 100,000 people — while El Salvador was second, at 69.2. (The U.S. rate is less than 5 per 100,000). In part, the bloodshed is a legacy of the wars of the 1980s and the weapons they left behind, and in part it is the product of international drug trafficking. According to the State Department, nearly 80 percent of the cocaine transported to the United States passes through Honduras.

A big piece of the problem, however, is wars among gangs, which in both countries have tens of thousands of members and are heavily armed. For the last 15 months, El Salvador has been engaged in a bold experiment to staunch the bloodletting: a truce among the largest gangs, brokered by the Catholic Church and facilitated by the government. The impact has been undeniable: Authorities reported that murders dropped by half in the pact’s first year, from more than 4,000 annually between 2009 and 2011 to 2,195 in 2012.

Last week a similar truce was announced in Honduras involving two of the same gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (MS-18). Again, church leaders and the Organization of American States were brokers; President Porfirio Lobo expressed support, and a commission is to be set up to organize a dialogue between the gangs and his government.

What remains to be seen is if the truce strategy can bring about a sustainable drop in violence in the two countries. In El Salvador, the gang truce remains unpopular despite the falloff in killings. That’s because the gangs have continued to fund themselves by extorting money from businesses large and small as well as through robberies and kidnappings. In Honduras, the gangs are at war with police as well as with each other. The Associated Press has reported that police death squads have killed dozens of gang members.

What’s needed are programs that build on the truce to draw gang members into training programs and jobs. In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes has launched an initiative in which municipalities can arrange with gang leaders to become “peace territories.” In exchange for ending extortion and other illegal activitiesy, gang members can join jobs programs or receive loans to start small businesses. Mr. Funes has pledged $33 million to 18 municipalities so far, a substantial sum in a poor country of 6 million.

Similar programs will be needed if Honduras’s truce is to produce results — and the United States can play an important supporting role. Although the Obama administration has kept its distance from the truce deals, the administration has asked for a 20 percent increase in funding next year for its Central American Regional Security Initiative, which aims to combat crime by training police forces and sponsoring programming for youth. Given the efforts underway in El Salvador and Honduras, the added funding is worthy of congressional support.