SAN SALVADOR — One of the gangsters, a black bandanna over his mouth and two rosaries around his neck, tapped his clawlike fingernail on the table.
Next to him was a sworn enemy, a man with a black fisherman’s hat pulled down over rainbow-tinted sunglasses.
The two rivals, and their tens of thousands of followers in El Salvador’s dominant gangs, have called a halt, for the moment, to their street war with each other and the government. On March 25, Mara Salvatrucha and two factions of the 18th Street gang announced a cease-fire, a respite from the fighting that has made El Salvador one of the world’s deadliest countries.
“We’re not friends,” one of the gangsters, a spokesman for the 18th Street gang, said in a rare interview last week, alongside a Mara Salvatrucha representative. “But the three gangs are united in this effort to come together to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country.”
Many, though, expect the cease-fire will be temporary, a lull in an ever more chaotic battle, a moment that simply shows the enormous gap that separates these gangs from the government. El Salvador’s ferocious pace of violence, with more than 2,000 murders in the past three months, has exhausted all sides. Dozens of police and their relatives have been hunted down and killed by gangsters, provoking defections from the ranks. The gangsters complain about police running death squads, their friends being driven off in pickup trucks and disappearing.
But despite the enormous toll on both sides, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has remained defiant, vowing to tighten security at prisons and relentlessly pursue gang members.
“The government has said there’s no chance of dialogue with the gangs,” Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the minister of security and justice, said in an interview.
The Salvadoran gangs are descendants of gangs formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants who fled this country’s civil war. Many of their leaders were eventually deported back to El Salvador. The country is now a patchwork of gang-controlled neighborhoods. Their members extort residents, kill, kidnap, rape and serve as sentries against rival cliques. The gangs and experts who study them estimate their active ranks at 70,000 people, not including the tens of thousands behind bars.
After Sánchez Cerén was elected in 2014, he criticized his predecessor’s decision to negotiate with the gangs, and vowed to punish them with the full force of the law. The conflict has steadily escalated.
“I think there is really a fatigue with the war,” said Juan Jose Martinez, an anthropologist who studies Salvadoran gangs.
“This is not like the violence we’ve always had,” he added. “This is a crisis of violence.”
But Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla leader during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, has vowed to intensify the crackdown on the gangs. Following months of police raids, his government plans to transfer hundreds of jailed gang leaders to solitary confinement, and has proposed what it calls “extraordinary measures” to further disrupt gang communications. “With these cruel criminals, it is not possible to have an attitude of tolerance,” Sánchez Cerén said last week.
Ramírez Landaverde dismissed the possibility that the current pause could stretch into a more durable peace, saying the gang landscape is fragmented with hundreds of small cells and cliques.
“Often it turns out they [gang leaders] don’t have the backing of all the groups, or all of the members,” he said. “Many of them don’t participate, and you can see proof in the streets. They’re killing like nothing happened.”
The streets, however, do seem to have calmed. Over the first six days of the gang cease-fire, initially set for 72 hours but now with no official endpoint, an average of 10 people were slain each day, less than half the rate of killing in the first two months this year.
The representatives from Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street agreed to an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their self-imposed cease-fire. They met with a reporter in the top-floor office of a Lutheran church in an industrial part of San Salvador, where they have come repeatedly to see religious and community leaders in recent months.
They said they have agreed, for now, to respect each other’s territorial limits.
“They have their territory, we have ours,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “We are demonstrating to the Salvadoran people, the international community, that we are capable of coming here, stopping this whole wave of violence. We can stop everything.”
The gang members said, however, that they had lost faith in the possibility of negotiating directly with the government, and asked for the international community — the United Nations, the European Union, Pope Francis — to step in as a mediator.
Past attempts at ending the gang war have failed. A 2012 truce, negotiated by former guerrillas and religious leaders, with the support of former president Mauricio Funes, lasted for two years and then fell apart after the government imposed tighter conditions on jailed gang members. Critics say that the gangs used the time to rearm and grow stronger.
The current one-sided truce could quickly be followed by more violence, as the gangs seem determined to fight back if the police do not ease up.
“This is kicking the hornet’s nest,” Raul Mijango, a politician and former guerrilla who helped negotiate the previous gang truce, said of the government’s current approach. “These iron-fisted actions — today it’s total war declared against the gangs — have not been effective against these types of problems. On the contrary, what they’ve always done is increase them.”
Some of the gang members’ statements had a political flavor: They described the government as corrupt and exploitative and labeled members of the administration as hypocrites, former guerrillas who betrayed the poor people of El Salvador once they got into power. The gang members cast themselves as benefactors, offering survival in a poor job market.
“If there isn’t work, how are you going to survive? You can’t eat air,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said.
They also said they were frustrated that the government has not invested more in programs to reintegrate gang members into society, or provide jobs for them. They seemed particularly outraged about the conditions inside prisons, where they said gang members are sick and dying and receive insufficient medical care. In their neighborhoods, they complained, there were indiscriminate arrests and killings.
“The police arrive in a community and grab everyone in sight,” the Mara Salvatrucha spokesman said. “They show up, push the kids against the wall, beat them, put them in the cop car, and drive them to a rival territory, where they know they’ll be killed.”
But the gangs have also murdered police at an ever-increasing rate — at least 12 this year, plus dozens of their relatives. The growing danger has devastated police morale. Over the past year, a movement has surged within police ranks, led by lower-ranking officers who complain about poor pay, insufficient equipment and the risk of dying. Hundreds have quit, police said, many of them heading north to try to cross illegally into the United States.
In response to the rising gang violence, authorities have cut off family visits to inmates and deployed soldiers to guard prisons. The legislature approved Sánchez Cerén’s request for more power to transfer inmates to higher-security facilities, where they would have less access to phones, visitors and weapons. His government has already moved some 300 mid-level gang leaders to more secure facilities in an attempt to block imprisoned leaders from running their gangs. The president has also called for building three jails for people awaiting trial in an effort to ease the crowded conditions.
Some doubt that the government’s defiance is as strong as it seems. Throughout the conflict, governments have often denounced the gangs publicly while reaching out to them privately. The existence of the 2012 truce, revealed by the El Faro newspaper, was never supposed to have been public knowledge. Some experts suspect a new covert deal is already in the works between the gangs and the government. Religious leaders are among the only people openly working toward that outcome now.
“The whole world is opposed to dialogue,” said Rafael Menjivar Saavedra, a Lutheran pastor who has met with the gang members. “My response to them is, ‘So what’s your alternative?’ ”