Last week El Salvador celebrated its first day without a single homicide in almost three years. This seems to be the consequence of a deal cut between president Mauricio Funes and the two main Salvadorean gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The easy criticism would be to dismiss such an agreement as an appalling example of an incompetent government yielding to criminal gangs. Yet, the success of such settlement would mean that weak states—despite their limited resources—may establish dialogues with the segments that are the sources of instability. If brutal and powerful drug bands are responsive to an ephemeral ceasefire, maybe they would also be willing to engage in dialogues intended to find ways to air their grievances and fulfill their aspirations peacefully.
Although it is morally questionable that a government should negotiate with gangs that have shown an appalling disregard for life and suffering, what is the alternative for a weak state lacking the police, courts prisons, intelligence and revenuenecessary to provide security for its people? This is not the case of a corrupt government making deals with criminals, but of a weak state trying to avoid collapsing into lawlessness.
The situation in Mexico, where the militarized crackdown on drug mafias has caused a dramatic surge in violence with no end in sight should caution against the perils of adopting such an approach. A different attitude would be to recognize the limited capacities of the Salvadorean state and that its gangs are not only part of Salvadorean society but also an expression of its failure. One should be careful to avoid the misleading premise that criminals and the citizens they prey upon are two irreconcilable groups. This distinction does not address the fundamental problems that underlie violence.
Many criminals are citizens for whom the only path towards meaning and recognition is paved with violence because they see no reasonable alternatives at hand. A persistent lack of opportunities—e.g. health, education and employment—will make sure that the maturing crops of youth remain feeding the cadres of criminals gangs. How can they be encouraged to become law-abiding citizens instead of vicious mobsters? Every society has a right to punish its criminals in order to serve justice, but it also has the duty to provide them with the kind of opportunities that would prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place.