SUPPORT MOUNTS FOR SALVADORAN GANG TRUCE
BY TOM HAYDEN
Longtime gang peace process advocates in Los Angeles announced new support on Memorial Day for the 11-week truce called by incarcerated Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang leaders which has sharply reduced homicides in El Salvador
An estimated 700 lives have been saved since March as homicide rates have fallen from 14-15 to 4-5 per day, or a 65 percent reduction. For the first time in decades, polling shows Salvadoran public opinion defining poverty reduction as their first priority, ahead of sweeps and mass detention. The truce, which is supported by Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes, began Mar. 9 when 30 truce leaders were transferred from a super-max prison to high-security facilities where they were permitted contacts with family and friends. The transfer was approved by the Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Security David Munguia. On March 20, it was confirmed that mediation efforts were being led Raul Mijango, a former guerrilla commandante and legislator, and the head chaplain of the armed forces and police, Bishop Fabio Colindres.
As LA-based peace advocates gathered Monday at La Placita church on Olvera Street, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States [OAS] was set to travel on a supportive visit to El Salvador, to be followed by United Nations and European Union representatives.
A new “Transitional Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador” was announced at the LA press conference. The twenty-member committee includes a new official presence in gang peace efforts, Paula Cruz Takash, president of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, and a cross-section of leaders with deep roots in past gang peace efforts, including the author Luis Rodriguez and his wife Trini of the Tia Chucha Cultural Center, Aquil Basheer and “Niko” of Maximum Force Enterprise, Aqeela Sherrells of the original Watts truce, Enrique Hurtado of Aztecs Rising, Angela Sambrano of CARACEN, Fr. Michael Kennedy of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, Hector Verdugo, also of Homeboy, and Javier Stauring of the LA Archdiocese. Chairing the press conference was Silvia Beltran, former director of Homies Unidos and currently on the staff of the LA City Council. Also speaking were a Salvadoran student at Cal State Northridge, Elvira Padilla, and a sister of one of the incarcerated men, Mayra Rivas.
The new transnational committee is represented in Washington DC by Luis Cardona and Carmen Perez of the Gathering for Justice [founded by Harry Belafonte] and Juan Pacheco, director of Barrios Unidos.
The purposes of the transnational committee are to work for the safety of those involved in the Salvadoran truce, doing an inventory of the gang members specific needs, and building support and resources for the community-led process. Needs identified so far include: new mattresses for family visits, mental and medical health services, sentence reductions for good conduct, and vocational training in prison with job placement upon release. The MS and 18th Street representatives also call on the army and police to control and prevent ongoing human rights violations, and protect the safety of the peace process Female gang members are demanding the involvement of women’s and family service organizations to address their specific needs.
Besides initiating the truce, the gang leaders so far have defined schools as “safe zones”, ordered the end of forced recruitment of young people, and suspend criminal activities and attacks on each other.
Luis Rodriguez and Aqeela Sherrells spoke passionately and at length about the history of past peace process efforts in Watts, East Los Angeles, and among deported gang members in El Salvador. “Peace comes from the heart of people, from a rejection of violence by the people, and when it comes from the ground up we must stand with them”, Rodriguez began. “This has happened before, has been sabotaged before, and failed before for lack of resources and respect, but out of every failure there rise new peace warriors.” Rodriguez said he sees “peace surging again, and we have to learn the lesson that peace doesn’t come from institutions, peace doesn’t come from peaceful people, peace can come in the end from the people who began the violence, the best sometimes can come from the worst.”
Sherrells recalled that 20,000 died in LA’s gang wars between Crips and Bloods before the 1992 truce. “It was a war zone, but we created a culture of peace on the streets”, he said, attributing ten percent of the violence reduction to policing. “Gangs are not inherently negative, do not come like outside aliens, but arise among our sons and daughters, and they need healing, a public health approach, a community-based approach.” He pointed out that gang homicides have continued to fall in Los Angeles even while poverty rates have been climbing. “We love you”, he declared to the largely-immigrant gathering. Bashir, an ex-Panther, added that “we have to unify or die.”
In the most dramatic moment of the day, Homies Unidos leader Alex Sanchez spoke for the first time in public since his June 2009 federal indictment on gang conspiracy charges. Los Angeles police anti-gang officers and prosecutors have charged Sanchez, a former MS member, with continuing to secretly participate in the gang as a so-called “shot caller.” Sanchez and his many supporters argue that a key role in violence reduction can be played by respected former gang members when they mediate conflicts and create alternatives to the violent gang life. But any such “association” is suspect to law enforcement and often prohibited by anti-gang laws and regulations.
Sanchez was arrested by the LAPD and faced deportation over a decade ago, but all charges were dropped and a federal immigration judge granted Sanchez political asylum. He was arrested again in 2009, charged with multiple conspiracies,. He was granted bail in 2010 after representatives of the LAPD and FBI were unable to prove in federal court that he would be a social danger if released. His trial now is set for next June.
Imprisoned Salvadoran gang members and their families, as well as Salvadoran officials have made phone requests for Sanchez to intervene as a mediator and coalition-builder on behalf of the fragile process. The irony is that Sanchez is prohibited from communicating with any MS members except in the office of his Los Angeles public defender, Amy Jacks. Despite the technical difficulties, Sanchez seemed energized on Sunday by the opportunity to act positively in a context painfully familiar to him, after two years of defending himself in numerous court appearances. On this Memorial Day, he called out the names of Homies Unidos members killed in El Salvador – Hector, Ringo, Bullet, and Smoky, among others – saying, “this is a baton thrown out to us, and it is our duty to pick it up. ”
Twenty years of organizing in Los Angeles have yielded two models which can be useful for El Salvador, Sanchez said. The first, peace work in the streets and prisons by former gang members like Sanchez, is already adopted and funded in LA as an official “gang prevention and intervention model”, endorsed as well by the LAPD after years of debate. Since the intervention model was developed in part from the experience of Salvadoran gang members it already is “indigenous”, not a foreign model run by government bureaucrats, Peace Corps-style.
Second and equally important, Sanchez and others stressed, is the urgent need for rehabilitation, training and jobs modeled at Homeboy Industries under the inspiration of Fr. Boyle, who has been involved in the Salvadoran community for years. At Homeboy, where the motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job”, young homeboys and homegirls are counseled, trained and directly employed by the agency, the largest of its kind in the US.
Homeboy staff are expected to confer directly with Salvadoran parties, private investors and government agencies interested in the model of such direct employment. They will stress that gang violence reduction is the key to attracting foreign investment to the besieged country, and jobs the key to violence reduction – a virtuous circle in place of a vicious one.
Gang rappers and poets in El Salvador have long described themselves as the fruits of the war – “las fruitas de la guerra.” There now is the possibility of a great reversal, with gang members, their families and all of El Salvador realizing the fruits of peace. #