“We take responsibility for the mistakes we’ve made,” El Conejo said, stroking the chihuahua. “And like good people, we want to change.”
Beside him, another high-
ranking 18th Street member nodded, his forehead bannered in tattoos. “Violence just generates more violence,” he said.
In the prisons of battle-scarred Honduras, the country with the highest per capita murder rate in the world, such talk is good cause for skepticism. But it might be the best hope for a reprieve.
The 18th Street gang and its arch rival, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have taken small, suspicion-filled steps in recent weeks toward what church leaders and their supporters at the Organization of American States are calling “a peace process,” careful to avoid the term “gang truce.”
The goal, the peace-brokers say, is broader than a mere cease-fire between the region’s two most notorious transnational gangs, both of which have thousands of members in the United States. The brokers say they are trying to halt the spiraling drug violence and criminality that have brought new depths of misery and renewed instability to Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Although the gangs are not driven by political ideology, the negotiators have been drawing on conflict resolution tactics learned a generation ago, when the region’s civil wars triggered cycles of recrimination that were finally overcome at the bargaining table.
Forging peace this time seems far tougher. But in El Salvador, where a social worker, a priest and OAS officials first brought the two gangs together 16 months ago, the effort has produced an extraordinary shift.
According to government crime statistics, homicides in El Salvador have dropped more than 50 percent since the shot-callers in prison worked out a fragile accord and told their underlings to stand down.
Now the challenge is to translate the model to Honduras, where the violence is worse, the drug trade is more lucrative and the government is weaker.
Monsignor Rómulo Emiliani, the archbishop of San Pedro Sula, is pushing forward with the effort anyway. If he succeeds in Honduras, the armistice could extend to Guatemala and reach the gang’s franchises, or “clickas,” in Los Angeles, Washington and other U.S. cities.
U.S. law enforcement agencies are watching closely. “We’re aware of it, but we’re not getting intelligence one way or another as to whether it would have an effect,” said Ray Colgan, director of a regional gang task force in Northern Virginia, where MS-13 is the largest criminal group. “We don’t have the levels of violence here that they have down there.”
In Honduras, which recorded 85 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, the gangs are just one party to the killings.