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A Deal with the Devil: Why Northern Triangle Leaders Must Negotiate with Las Maras
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The Northern Triangle (NT), comprising El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, has been the global epicenter of violence since the early 2010s. The region has been riddled with so much danger that in 2013 the Northern Triangle countries were ranked within the top five most dangerous countries in addition to being in the top four for femicide rates.[iv] The main cause of violence is the presence of gangs within these countries, also known as maras. Las maras have a vast and strong presence from territorial and economic control to the amount of violence occurring.[ii] Due to the stronghold gangs have in the region, it is imperative that the governments of the Northern Triangle attempt to negotiate with leaders of las maras to sequester the violence and bring peace to the region.

Before going further, one must understand how the issue arose in the first place. In 1996, congress passed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which permitted the deportation of many individuals, including 46,000 convicted immigrants.[vi,vii] Moreover, of the convicts deported, many were part of gangs known as MS-13 and M-18 which were exported out of the United States when deported individuals returned to their origin countries.[vi] The presence of gangs snowballed in the Northern Triangle countries, creating the hostile environment we see today. Recruiting children and deported migrants, las maras have no end in sight over their territorial demonstration and see no reason to lay down arms; thus, the only remedy left for governments is to negotiate.

Although a contentious argument, the ultimate action that Northern Triangle leaders have at their disposal would be negotiation. Various, if not all, leaders of the Northern Triangle have resorted to a policy of fighting violence with violence. This belligerent approach is primarily due to the societal appeal of caudillismo, a form of strongman-leadership which is not only prevalent in much of Latin America, but something the population tends to favor.[i] Though this is great in theory, hardlining the maras through military use solely propagates more violence in the region between gangs and government security forces.[xi] Thus, a different approach is necessary to curtail the ever rising violence occurring within the region.

Negotiations can be an effective tool for Northern Triangle governments  to offset the violence occurring within the region. Although all forms of talk are efficient in getting their aspired objective completed, the longevity depends on the situational circumstances on how the such negotiations are carried –– take, for example, El Salvador. In 2012, both MS-13 and Barrio 18 established a truce organized by the Salvadoran government to sequester the rising violence within the country.[iii] Although this did work in theory, violence arose in 2014 signifying an end of peace and a rise in overall violence within the region.[viii] Although many factors are seemingly to blame, the prominent one is the Salvadoran government publicly accrediting themselves as brokers of the deal.[xi] Though this accreditation led to the eventual demise, it is important to note why. Many presume the publicity of such talks and the gangs being seen as forgoing too much to appease the state and diminishes their stance as “strongmen”. Though this is a presumptuous initial stance, it is inaccurate and a half truth.

 Continuing with El Salvador, Bukeye has learned from his predecessors past mistakes and noted not to publicize the talks and negotiations between the government and gang members.[x] In fact, the governments have even gone ahead in putting up a facade of disdain in referencing their communication with the gangs to broker some form of a deal.[ix] Although extrinsically keeping the population out of the know may better the governments odds of a truce’s longevity, in the short term their slyness and peculiar behavior may raise international queries –– the U.S being one component to be vigilant of.[xii] These secret negotiations did occur, but not without hindrance. In time the negotiations were successful in lessening the violence, but this peace was not long lasting. Not only were the gangs on a killing spree, they were actively seeking to make a political statement.[v] In essence, negotiations on the surface level do not seemingly not work.

Despite this refuting the initial argument, it is important to make clear that strategic negotiations are completely operatiable, yet it is a matter of what is discussed. Las maras know no political entity which they are bound to besides the leadership at the top of their gangs. Therefore, all negotiations could fray should governments not negotiate with top-level officials of the gangs. Moreover, it is important that the governments themselves stick to their word and have a more detailed purpose for negotiating. Although offering safety and rehabilitation programs in prison is a start ––of which both truce, 2012 and 2019, implemented–– it is not enough to keep the gangs appeased nor sequester violence for long term peace. The recourse Northern Triangle governments need to seek is long-term, societal impacts that affect not just the gangs but the entire society. The reason the truces ended is because the gangs knew that an increase in homicides would bring the government back to the negotiating table, as evident in El Salvador. Therefore, the government needs to include not just the gang as beneficiaries to the truce but society as a whole –– outside the safety that would be fostered. Creating economic and societal safety nets within those truces could (1) curtail recruitment for gangs and cause individuals to leave the dangerous lifestyle and (2) address the root problem that incubated the rise of such a problem in the first place.

Therefore, the only feasible recourse necessary to address the surmounting violence plaguing the Northern Triangle is implementing societal level impacts in the talks, fostering a sense of community in which the gangs are not only major contributors to providing but also beneficiaries.

Ignacio Gomez (he/him) is a junior at The George Washington University. He majors in international affairs with a concentration in comparative political, economic, and social systems. Although Ignacio has not had any prior publications, he has written several papers throughout university on an array of topics from racism at the United States Department of State to issues of reintegration in the Northern Triangle. Academics aside, Ignacio has held previous leadership roles in TEDxFoggyBottom, Greater Washington Conference 0n International Affairs, Washington Area Model United Nations Conference, and is a member of the GW Model United Nations team.


[i] Bodenheimer, Rebecca. “What Is Caudillismo? Definition and Examples in Latin American History.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo, December 10, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/caudillismo-definition-4774422#:~:text=Caudillismo is a system of,head of a political faction.

[ii] Eguizábal, Cristina, Matthew C. Ingram, Karise M. Curtis, Aaron Korthuis, Eric L. Olson, and Nicholas Phillips. 2015. “Crime and Violence in Central America's Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policy Responses Are Helping, Hurting, and Can Be Improved (No. 34).” Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/crime-and-violence-central-americas-northern-triangle-how-us-policy-responses-are.

[iii] Eguizábal, Cristina. 2014. “La Iniciativa Regional De Seguridad Para América Central.” Wilson Center. Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/CARSI en El Salvador_Final_spanish.pdf.

[iv] Hananel, Sam, Laura Rodriguez, Madeline Shepherd, Lola Oduyeru, Sharita Gruberg, Dan Restrepo, Tom Jawetz, et al. 2017. “A Medium- and Long-Term Plan to Address the Central American Refugee Situation.” Center for American Progress. March 13. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/a-medium-and-long-term-plan-to-address-the-central-american-refugee-situation/.

[v] Meléndez-Sánchez, Manuel. “What's behind the Spike of Violence in El Salvador?” Lawfare, April 11, 2022. https://www.lawfareblog.com/whats-behind-spike-violence-el-salvador.

[vi] Meyer, Peter J, Clare Ribando, Maureen Taft-Morales, and Rhoda Margesson. 2014. “Unaccompanied Children from Central America: Foreign Policy Considerations.” Current Politics and Economics of South and Central America; Hauppauge 7 (3): 463–91. http://proxygw.wrlc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/unaccompanied-children-central-america-foreign/docview/1654997187/se-2?accountid=11243.

[vii] “The Northern Triangle Is Becoming Less Murderous.” 2018. The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. December 8. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/12/08/the-northern-triangle-is-becoming-less-murderous.

[viii] O'Reilly, Andrew. “Barrio 18 v. MS-13: The Gang War Tearing the Americas Apart.” news.com.au, August 5, 2017. https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/barrio-18-v-ms13-the-gang-war-tearing-the-americas-apart/news-story/543f3eb2f2057801a8144467c8f1ba37.

[ix] Osborn, Catherine. “The Open Secret of Government-Gang Talks.” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/01/el-salvador-gang-killings-state-of-emergency-bukele-truce-talks/.

[x] Robbins, Seth. “Evidence of Gang Negotiations Belie El Salvador President's Claims.” InSight Crime, August 24, 2021. https://insightcrime.org/news/evidence-of-gang-negotiations-belie-el-salvador-presidents-claims/.

[xi] Seelke, Clare Ribando. 2016. “Gangs in Central America.” Congressional Research Service. Congressional Research Service. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/RL34112.pdf.

[xii] Sheridan, Mary Beth, and Anna-Catherine Brigida. “U.S. Accuses El Salvador of Cutting Secret Deal with MS-13 to Tamp Down Killings.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 9, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/12/08/salvador-bukele-gangs-sanctions/.

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