Negotiating With Gangs: Lessons From the 2012 Truce in El Salvador

Siniša Vuković is a Senior Lecturer of Conflict Management and Global Policy and Director of the Master of Arts Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Eric Rahman is a Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State. His diplomatic postings have included Haiti and Algeria. 

The views expressed in the article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the US Department of State or the United States.

Part I: A Three-Step Approach for Negotiating with Gangs 


Security is an essential public good. Although traditional approaches to security challenges have increasingly shifted focus from conventional inter-state wars to more complex forms of intra-state conflict, they often fail to capture and reflect on the most recent global socioeconomic trends that explain the present-day surge of violence. Due to accelerated littoralization—defined as the “concentration of economic activity in coastal areas because of urban growth, industrial activities, tourism and irrigation”—and rampant urbanization, more than 50 percent of the global population now live in urban areas mostly concentrated within 150 kilometers from the coastline.[i] According to UN estimates, by 2030 “two thirds of global population will live cities, urban population in developing countries will double, and the area covered by cities could triple.”[ii]

As the world becomes more interconnected and urbanized, it is becoming increasingly the case that the majority of violent deaths are no longer related to armed conflicts, but rather to criminal activities, organized crime, and political and state-led violence.[iii] This trend is particularly evident in the Western hemisphere where gangs remain the primary threat to citizen security. Between 1980 and 2000, urban violence in developing countries increased by nearly a third, with homicide rates for urban youth in Latin America higher than in any other region of the world.[iv] In the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where the gang problem is particularly acute, the US State Department estimates that in 2012 there were as many as 85,000 individuals belonging to one of the two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.[v] Despite decades of confrontation using traditional law and order measures, gang activity has, at best, ebbed and flowed with the intensity of enforcement.

The inability of conventional security measures to confront the evident surge of urban violence prompts a crucial question: is there an alternative way to address such adverse societal dynamics? Given certain conditions, and with the proper process design, a negotiated way out may prove a viable and effective alternative approach to reducing violence, criminality, and transforming gang-related conflict. Because of the nature of gangs and their relation to society, negotiation requires a three-step process, which includes:

  1. State-sponsored mediation to establish a cease-fire between the gangs.
  2. A negotiation process between the state and the conflicting gangs.
  3. A process of mainstreaming reformed criminal structures and incorporating them into society as legitimate and legal actors.

What Makes a Gang?

Compared to other non-state armed groups, criminal gangs’ violence is not a tool used to achieve a political or ideological goal, nor is it exercised to boost group support. Typically, these organizations have a core membership and a network of active supporters, but there are hardly any inactive supporters or those that would support gangs’ goals but not their methods. Therefore, while gang networks can become relatively large, they are an incredibly polarizing force and cannot be considered a legitimately representative actor. Contrary to other insurgent movements, which use a grievance-driven narrative to mobilize broader popular support, gangs lack an ideologically motivated pretext which can be used to articulate specific political or socioeconomic grievances.[vi]

Therefore, gangs represent a violent, non-ideological, profit- and relationship-driven, socioeconomic phenomenon that thrives in a governance vacuum. The more gang activities become entrenched in societal routines, the less likely it will be for any authority to eradicate them by force without transforming that society into a police state.[vii] On the surface, gang violence presents a seemingly intractable problem for societies because there is no obvious means for the state to escape the cycle of violence, there is no constituency to de-radicalize, and there are no opposing political issues on which to base negotiations.    

When and How to Negotiate?

Negotiations can only be effective if the process focuses on interests rather than issues.[viii] In the context of negotiating with gangs, this is of crucial importance, as most initiatives collapse because gangs are typically unable or unwilling to clearly articulate the interests that drive their socially deviant behavior. Therefore, before taking any further negotiating steps, it is essential to determine the interests that gangs hold and how these can be translated into a negotiating position. This process of assisted articulation, through which an outside party works with gangs to develop an actionable negotiating platform, should rely on factors that drive gang participation, such as:

1) socio-political alienation/exclusion;

2) the failure of economic opportunities to meet expectations;

3) prestige (the allure of authority and power in a community);

4) identity formation;

5) a history of exposure to violence.[ix]

A precondition for success in subsequent negotiations is the ability to construct an agenda for the gangs that is politically feasible and acceptable for government authorities, which can open a zone of possible agreement. For instance, it is possible for the government to engage with demands to develop disregarded neighborhoods or provide employment opportunities for disgruntled youth in marginalized communities. These positions can become the focal point of negotiations and balance out the other, less palatable demands. At the same time, engaging gangs in dialogue requires a better understanding of opportunity costs that gang members incur when giving up criminal activities such as smuggling, extortion, or robbery. The size of the illicit markets that they tap into informs such cost-benefit calculations. Therefore, the process of assisted articulation is only possible if it focuses on aspects that motivate individuals to join gangs and acknowledges the elements that contribute to gang viability.

Step One: State-Sponsored Mediation

The first phase of the process requires only a tangential involvement by the state, either through its envoys or reliable proxies that can sponsor a dialogue between two or more rival gang factions. This dialogue must be protected by a veil of secrecy to shield the nascent process from a hostile public, with the goal of creating a ceasefire and ending the violence. It is critical that the discussions of a ceasefire be perceived by all parties as a prelude to the next phase rather than an end in itself. This may require a manipulation of the existing incentive structures: on the one hand increasing the pressure through a strict enforcement of the rule of law, on the other signaling enticing opportunities that can only be achieved if gangs are credibly committed to the subsequent negotiation process. To maintain involvement but keep the talks secret, the state can sponsor a mediator to frame the ceasefire dialogue as a way out and a means to get to the second phase of direct negotiations, where these enticing opportunities may be negotiated in full. Given the high political costs of direct engagement with criminal gangs, the government may use a surrogate to deflect criticism and maintain a level of plausible deniability.

Step Two: Negotiation

Once a truce or ceasefire is credibly established between gangs, and their interests adequately articulated, it is then possible, and necessary, for the government to engage directly. The key for the state during the bilateral negotiation phase is to make the way out of the conflict contingent upon adhering to a structured plan to abandon criminality. If gangs are allowed to maintain their criminal operations after engaging in talks with the government, the public would undoubtedly perceive that the situation amounts to tacit consent by the state. During the first phase of state-sponsored mediation, the dialogue must be secret, but during the second phase, the relatively hostile public can be used to bolster the government’s position vis-à-vis the gangs by lending credibility to their argument that only certain concessions can be granted. Public opinion signals the government’s firm reservation point to the gangs, clearly communicating that some justice must be served and criminality will not be tolerated.   

Step three: Mainstreaming

The final stage is the process of mainstreaming and the monitoring of implementation. It is important that this final phase be the focus of bilateral negotiations between the state and gangs because the details of the mainstreaming process are an integral part of the incentive package needed to entice gangs to disengage from criminal life. There are obvious risks to this process of mainstreaming, namely that the allure of criminal markets would encourage recidivism and that the relative weakness of the state in traditional gang-dominated communities would inhibit the robust verification of compliance.[x] The presence of guarantors of the peace process, which can provide a physical monitoring presence and incentive for compliance would help mitigate this risk.

As practice shows, the process of mainstreaming is highly context-dependent. However, it includes two fundamental elements:

1) the new role that gang structures play in society must fill the gaps which induced their initial turn to criminality;

2) the allure of that new societal role and additional opportunities must be substantial enough to outweigh the opportunity cost associated with criminal enterprises.

The state can address the psychosocial aspect of gangs in a post-truce context by allowing gangs to maintain their structures. In some post-conflict environments, it might be wise to disrupt the networks of former insurgent movements by separating demobilized units, but because gangs are fueled in large part by the search for identity, belonging, and social capital, gang structures should remain intact. These networks can and should be mobilized in the mainstreaming process for productive purposes without disrupting the deep connection that gangs provide. To ensure that these networks do not relapse into criminal activity, the state must also make clear that it maintains a zero-tolerance policy for criminal activity and non-compliance with the negotiated agreement. The mainstreaming phase of this strategy will only stand a chance of creating a durable peace if it focuses on ensuring that the opportunities presented are sufficiently enticing and that the new role in society directly addresses the root causes of gang participation.  


The pressures of urbanization, demographic change, and littoralization, make it especially difficult for states with underdeveloped institutions to address the threat posed by criminal gangs. Governments of countries around the world plagued by high levels of criminally driven violence have traditionally relied on security sector and law enforcement-centric responses, to little appreciable effect on levels of violence and criminality. In societies where the gang-driven violence is particularly pronounced, criminal networks are often so entrenched that negotiation may, in fact, offer the only viable solution. The Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where homicide rates are some of the highest in the world, could potentially benefit from a practical application of the three-step process. Of these three countries, where mano dura, or an “iron-fisted” law enforcement approach to the gang problem has predominated, El Salvador offers a compelling example of negotiation as an alternative. Below, we explore the 2012 gang truce in El Salvador in further detail and examine the process design and contextual elements of that effort against the three phased model outlined here.

Part II: The 2012 Gang Truce in El Salvador

El Salvador is an intriguing case against which to test the assumptions of this theory not only because it remains one of the most violent countries in the world, but also for its remarkable, and partially successful, attempt to negotiate with its two largest gangs in 2012. The case study presented here provides deeper insight into the three-phase theoretical model of gang negotiation. The successes and failures of the truce both reinforce the assumptions of our model and provide a window into how future endeavors should be structured.

The 2012 Truce

The gang truce in El Salvador, negotiated in secret and announced in March 2012, is the most notable example in the Western hemisphere of using negotiation as an alternative means to confront gang violence. The achievements of the initiative are undeniable. For the fifteen months following the announcement of the truce, the homicide rate in the country dropped by 53 percent, a remarkable achievement for what was prior to the truce the second most dangerous country in the world not considered an active war zone.[xi] Ultimately, though, the truce proved unsustainable and by early 2014 the country had plunged back into staggering violence. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from this case which can be carried forward into future efforts.

The truce of 2012 was negotiated primarily between the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18, which are the two largest gangs in the country, with Father Fabio Colindres, a local Catholic Bishop, and Raul Mijango, a former FMLN guerilla, serving as mediators. The government provided the space for the negotiation by allowing the mediators access to gang leaders held in maximum-security prisons and ultimately consenting to certain conditions demanded by the gangs.

The impetus for the formal talks began in 2011 with discussions amongst civil society and religious leaders concerned about the inability of a confrontational security sector approach to solve the violence. Conversations focused on how to structure a peace process with the gangs and during these initial talks, Mr. Mijango and Father Colindres took an active role.[xii] With the government’s consent, Mijango and Colindres began shuttling between the prisons, serving as intermediaries between the rival gangs, and ultimately, the government. On February 29, 2012, the gangs officially agreed to the following points:

1) to cease all types of hostilities between the two gangs;

2) to cease attacks on members of the national police;

3) to cease attacks on members of the armed forces;

4) to cease attacks against members of the penitentiary system;

5) to avoid producing any more civilian casualties.[xiii]

Beyond the ceasefire established by the agreement, a joint statement released by the leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 on March 19, 2012, indicates that the mediators were at least partially successful in the process of assisted articulation. In the Spanish statement translated here the gang leaderships state:

“The path to conversion that we have initiated is the result of a profound effort of analysis and discussion guided by the facilitators of the church and civil society, which has already begun to produce positive things which are of benefit to society. We do not ask to be pardoned for crimes already committed, only that the law is fairly applied, that we are treated as human beings, that we are supported in the social and productive reintegration of our members giving them work and educational opportunities, that they are not discriminated against and not repressed for the simple fact of being tattooed without having committed some criminal act.”[xiv]

 In the following month, the truce was made public by the news outlet El Faro and though the government initially denied any involvement, it became clear very quickly that it had played a role in sanctioning the process and granting certain concessions.

In keeping with the three-step theory, this would be the point at which the state would move into direct negotiations with the gangs, engaging on a platform established through the assisted articulation process. However, during the following months the truce moved into the implementation phase without any direct negotiation or engagement by the state. Three other large gangs in the country joined the process and “peace zones” were established during this period. In these zones, the gangs agreed to a total cessation of hostilities and certain organizations were allowed access to begin serving the community. Police were, however, barred from entering the communities as part of the agreement the gangs struck, a controversial move that created tension internally within the government amongst different factions.[xv] Despite concerns about the ability of the gangs to control their membership, within a day of the truce being implemented daily homicides dropped precipitously and stayed low for almost fifteen months.

The Truce Unravels

 Unfortunately, after a little over a year, the truce began to unravel following a series of fatal blows. The first of these came in the form of a Supreme Court ruling which removed truce-supporter General David Munguía Payés as Minister of Justice and Public Security. General Payés was replaced by Ricardo Perdomo, a staunch opponent of the truce who advocated vigorously for a return to mano dura policies. The state then replaced Mijango and Colindres as intermediaries with a second camp of mediators who did not enjoy the same legitimacy with the gangs and denied the former mediators access to the prisons.[xvi] The third and final blow to the truce was contextual. Due to the immense hurt that the gangs had inflicted upon society, the idea of the government granting any concessions was extremely unpopular and, as the 2014 election drew closer, the right-wing ARENA party used the truce to paint the ruling FMLN party as soft on gangs. This charge was hard to refute, in part because certain criminal activity continued unabated. In response, and at the urging of those within the government hostile to the truce, the FMLN began to return to its policy of confronting the gangs. The gangs, perceiving this as a breach of the truce conditions, began to re-arm in mid-2013 and the situation devolved into a trilateral war between the government and the two largest gangs.

Why It Failed

 Where the process foundered was two-fold. First, the government failed to actively prepare the population for the announcement of the truce. Secondly, the second phase of negotiations between the government and the gangs never truly occurred and certainly did not prioritize the social, economic, and political components of a deal that had in fact become part of the gangs’ negotiating position.

Therefore, interventions in the peace zones were under-resourced and moved too slowly to wean gangs off criminal activity. The concessions granted by the state were mainly concerned with the conditions within the prisons and keeping the police out of the newly established peace zones. While there were initiatives in certain peace zones in which Mijango and others worked with local businesses and gangs to eliminate extortion in exchange for resumption of municipal services, the efforts were not systematic and in most cases the gangs continued to operate.[xvii] This condition contributed to the public confidence crisis plaguing the government as the 2014 election neared. By endorsing the truce, the government could be accused of sanctioning criminal behavior that was still occurring, regardless of whether this charge was valid. The state also had very little incentive not to return to conflict with the gangs, given the lack of a perceived mutually hurting stalemate. The state in this instance needed to have prepared the public earlier to shift the perception of gang conflict, and to have engaged the gangs on the socioeconomic aspects of their negotiating position, while simultaneously making it clear that criminal activity would not be tolerated. Ultimately, the inability to transition beyond the ceasefire doomed the truce. 


As transnational criminal networks continue to flourish and gang activity becomes an increasingly prevalent threat to security around the globe, the predominant reliance on security sector-based measures may not suffice to abate the adverse effects of gang-related violence. According to some estimates, the 2012 gang truce in El Salvador, “saved at least 5,539 Salvadorans who would have died had the gang violence not been curtailed through dialogue and negotiation.”[xviii] The collapse of this truce in late 2013 and the gradual relapse into traditional security sector-led measures in the early part of 2014 accompanied an unprecedented surge in violence. By 2015, with 103 deaths per 100,000 people, El Salvador was second to only Syria in overall rates of annual violent deaths, making it a more dangerous and deadly place than most  countries experiencing ongoing armed conflict.[xix] Confronting a growing threat of gang violence is rapidly demanding a more nuanced approach, and despite high political costs, negotiations may still yield more stable and viable solutions compared to any available coercive measure used until now. The three-step model for dialogue with criminal gangs posits a way to contend with the more controversial and politically fraught aspects of negotiation, and the case of El Salvador highlights the potential benefits of dialogue. Correctly sequencing and fully committing to secret state-sponsored mediation, public bilateral negotiation, and the process of mainstreaming, would likely have mitigated some of the threats that ultimately doomed the truce in El Salvador. Going forward, as governments charged with providing the essential public good of security search for ways to confront the ever-increasing threat of gang-driven violence, the insights of the three-phase model and lessons from El Salvador may offer an attractive roadmap for addressing the seemingly intractable problem of gang violence.

Works Cited

[i] “Urbanization and Development: Emerging Futures,” United Nations Habitat, 2016,

[ii] Edith M. Lederer, “UN report: By 2030 Two-Thirds of World Will Live in Cities, Associated Press, May 18, 2016,

[iii] “Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts,” Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, May 8, 2015,,from%20526%2C000%20in%202004%E2%80%9309.

[iv] “World Drug Report 2010,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010,

[v] William R. Brownfield, “Gangs, Youths and Drugs: Breaking the Cycle of Violence and Crime,” United States Department of State, October 1, 2012,

[vi] I. William Zartman, Elusive Peace: Negotiating an End to Civil Wars, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995); Peter R. Neumann, “Negotiating with Terrorists,” Foreign Affairs, 86(1), 2007, 128-138.

[vii] “Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals from Latin America,” United Nations Development Program, January 1, 2013,

[viii] Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2011),

[ix] Jose Miguel Cruz, Maras y pandillas en Centroamérica: Pandillas y capital social [Maras and Gangs in Central America: Gangs and Social Capital], (Cádiz: UCA Publicaciones, 2001).  

[x] Achim Wennmann, “Negotiated Exits From Organized Crime? Building Peace in Conflict and Crime-Affected Contexts,” Negotiation Journal, July 14, 2014,

[xi] Jeannette Aguilar Villamariona, ed., La Situación de la Seguridad y la Justicia 2009-2014: Entre Expectativas de Cambio, Mano Dura Militar y Treguas Pandilleras [The Situation of Security and Justice 2009-2014: Between Expectations of Change, Military Iron Fist, and Gang Truces], (La Libertad, Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública, Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, 2014).

[xii] Raul Mijango, Personal Interview.

[xiii] Raul Mijango, “Tregua Entre Pandillas y/o Proceso de Paz en El Salvador [Gang Truce and/or Peace Process in El Salvador],” 2013.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Mijango, Personal Interview.

[xvi] Vega, M. Pastor. Personal Interview, January 2016.

[xvii] Mijango, Personal Interview.

[xviii] Wennmann, “Negotiated Exits,” 269; “Communicado de cabecillas de pandilla [Communique from Gang Leaders],” Voceros Nacionales de las Pandillas [National Gang Spokespersons] (VPN), March 9, 2014,

[xix] Geneva Academy. The War Report 2017: Gang Violence in Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador,,%20Mexico%20and%20El%20Salvador.pdf.

Siniša Vuković and Eric Rahman
Siniša Vuković and Eric Rahman

Siniša Vuković is a Senior Lecturer of Conflict Management and Global Policy and Director of the Master of Arts Global Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Eric Rahman is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. His diplomatic postings have included Haiti and Algeria. Prior to his diplomatic service, Eric worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Office of International Affairs. Eric received an M.A. in International Relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Political Science and Economics from Saint Olaf College.