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The Truce On Drugs


This is the main triumph of the Mexican drug war, but it may itself reflect an unintentional compromise. David Shirk, who is the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, believes that the pattern of violence in Tijuana doesn’t support the official narrative of a slow triumph of the police over the gangs. Instead, he sees a clear pattern of spikes and declines in violence—an indication, Shirk says, that in the midst of this violence was a kind of rational deal-making, truces made and broken between the cartels and perhaps the police. (The cynical view is that the cartel simply offered Garcia Simental up, once his madness had become more liability than asset.) The long current lull, Shirk says, likely reflects the Sinaloa cartel’s triumph. Murders are down, public safety restored, and yet the Sinaloa cartel has only been strengthened. “If what you’ve done in the end is hand control from one trafficking organization to another, then was it worth it?” Shirk asks. “You can have a debate about that.”

Each of these grand bargains, whether explicit or tacit, reveals a different weighting of leverage between the state and the outlaws. In Mexico, the state is weaker than it is in Baltimore; in the small countries in Central America, the imbalance of powers is even more extreme. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are in the midst of incursions by the cartels and now have three of the four highest national murder rates in the world. Here the outlaws can often outgun the law. When the Zetas infiltrated northern Guatemala in 2011—killing a rancher who had stolen a drug shipment, then massacring more than two dozen peasants—the president of Guatemala asked for the creation of a NATO-type organization to defend against the traffickers. He considered the threat to be existential.

Early this year, a former Salvadorean guerrilla fighter named Raul Mijango began meeting secretly with the leaders of the nation’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18, in prison, in an effort to negotiate a form of truce. The Salvadorean street gangs (each of which was founded in Los Angeles) are not major international movers of drugs, but they are known for an almost tribal violence, and in recent years, the conflicts between the two groups has threatened to overrun the state.

Mijango would not say who authorized his mission, though it was widely assumed that the government had sent him. The gang leaders in prison did not consult their allies in Los Angeles. But Mijango, a former guerrilla fighter, knew what exhaustion looked like. “I sensed from the beginning that they felt that maybe this was the opportunity they were looking for,” he says. In February, he asked the leaders to meet in the same room in a prison that had been set aside for that purpose, and though “the idea did not please them,” Mijango says, he felt some trust had been brokered when they saw one another face-to-face. Soon he had the framework of an agreement—in which the gangs would call off their feud with one another, would stop recruiting children. In return, the leaders wanted to be sent to other, more congenial prisons, where they could be closer to their families. That was all right with the authorities, and so, in May, the leaders were transferred.

The truce was not formally announced. The way that it reached the outside world was that the killing simply stopped. El Salvador had been averaging fourteen murders a day for years; the number soon fell to five. The secretary-general of the OAS arrived to help finalize the peace, and gang members placed symbolic machine guns at his feet. For six months, against most expectations, the peace has seemed to hold.

Abroad, the Salvadorean truce has been met with skepticism. “It is very interesting,” says John Walsh, director of the drug-policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It is also scary. Particularly when we don’t know what has been promised to the gangs.” Because of the OAS’s involvement, Blackwell has been forced to defend the truce publicly, and a few weeks ago, sitting in his office in Washington, I ask the diplomat whether it is wise for El Salvador to be negotiating with gangs.

“My philosophy’s always been the alternative’s worse,” Blackwell says. “If you think this is risky and you don’t want us to do this, then what’re you gonna do? You’ve got 300 percent overpopulation of the prisons, 400 percent overpopulation of the police lockups, 60,000 [gang members]. What exactly do you suggest? There is no manual for this.”

The first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, after its liberation from British colonial rule, was a left-wing historian and theorist named Eric Williams, and before his political career began, he spent some time studying the lives of the most brutish first-generation slaveholders, Englishmen who traveled to the Caribbean and indulged in unspeakable atrocities against their African slaves. In England, Williams discovered, many of them had been genuinely decent men—good fathers and husbands, yes, but also often very modern, liberal in their sympathies. Williams theorized that something happened to the slaveholders—something happens to us—when they moved beyond the line of civilization, past the reach of society and law. We evolve. We become cruder, more animalistic; we give ourselves special moral dispensations. We grow estranged from ourselves.


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