SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The president of El Salvador denied Wednesday that his government had rewarded his country's two largest street gangs for striking a truce credited with a dramatic drop in the staggering national homicide rate.
President Mauricio Funes said his administration had not negotiated with the gangsters. He did say, however, that the government responded to news of the truce by transferring 30 gang leaders to lower-security jails so they could order their underlings to stop attacking each other.
Critics have accused the government of negotiating the truce with the street gangs known as Maras and moving them out of maximum-security prisons days later to reward their cooperation.
The Maras have their roots in Southern California, where young men seeking refuge from Central America's civil wars formed violent gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and its suburbs in the 1980s. Gang members later deported from the U.S. re-established their violent organizations in their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
A recent U.N. report said El Salvador and neighboring Honduras have the highest homicide rates in the world, with 66 and 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively, in 2010. Together with Guatemala, which has a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000, Central America has been struggling to find solutions to the violence.
The Salvadoran government and the gang leaders have both denied negotiating with each other. But Funes' confirmation Tuesday that the gangsters were transferred on March 8 and 9 as a direct result of the truce was the strongest link the government has acknowledged between the cease-fire and the transfers.
In the weeks since Salvadoran media first reported the truce, those involved have been revealing an ever-sharper portrait of official involvement in a remarkable deal drawing together prominent citizens and gangsters blamed for a terrifying reign of shootings and extortion.
Leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs have told reporters that negotiations mediated by the head chaplain of the Salvadoran army and police led to the deal halting the battles over territory.
"This was an initiative by the Catholic Church," Funes said.
Police records show homicides dropped sharply in the two weeks after the truce, from an average of 14 a day to six daily. Funes credited the drop to both the truce and law-enforcement operations that led to the capture of more gang leaders.
The president said that in coming days he will call on all sectors of society to help build "a national accord that will guarantee the increasing eradication of violence and insecurity in the country." He did not provide details.
Samuel Logan, director of the security consulting firm Southern Pulse and an expert on Central American gangs, said he was skeptical of the homicide statistics and doubted the truce would hold. He said at least one other past truce between Salvadoran gangs quickly disintegrated.
"A truce is much harder to keep than it is to formulate or announce," he said. "I would be surprised if this thing were to congeal and become something more than an announcement."
The head army and police chaplain, Monsignor Fabio Colindres, has said the government knew he was acting as an intermediary in the talks, but it did not participate in the negotiations. In El Salvador, the military and police chaplain receives a government salary but works exclusively for the church.
Colindres and the papal ambassador to El Salvador celebrated a Mass on Monday attended by members of the Mara Salvatrucha at the Ciudad Barrios prison northeast of the capital.
"In the name of my entire gang, I want to ask for forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change," gang spokesman Dionisio Aristides Umanzor said. "We're human beings who aren't just here to do evil."
Most Central American nations have responded to the region's crime with tough anti-gang laws, which have added to problems of overcrowding and violence in their prisons. In February, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina proposed legalizing drugs as a way to decrease violent crime.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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