ROME — As El Salvador prepares to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the criminal gangs that terrorize the country have agreed to a sort of truce: As a gift to the martyr, they’ve promised to suspend killing police and military officers, judges, politicians, and the poor.
Romero, who was shot to death while saying Mass in 1980, is considered a national hero in El Salvador for his defense of the poor and of human rights at the outset of a bloody civil war. His May 23 beatification is expected to be one of the largest public events in the country’s history.
El Salvador’s gangs, known as “maras,” have vowed to desist from violence, theft, extortions, and other crimes during the beatification period.
“This is the gift we wish to make to Archbishop Romero,” they said in a statement released to the press, “our repentance and request for forgiveness to society for all the damage caused.”
The gang leaders said they’ll take some “pacification measures” to reduce the country’s violence, “despite not sensing equal willingness from the government.”
The message, confirmed by Paolo Lüers, the man in charge of mediating the latest peace negotiations between the government and the gangs, states that they will no longer kill police officers, soldiers, judges, politicians, and people with low incomes “most affected by the violence.”
They also vowed to cease “armed attacks,” renouncing their claim to “self-defense rights,” and to reduce extortion and theft.
The leaders added that they still expect to see “concrete proposals to reintegrate gang members into society,” claiming that the even though the government talks about social peace, it doesn’t follow through.
“We’re being exterminated,” they said, claiming that 140 gang members have been killed in the past two months.
An estimated 65,000 of El Salvador’s 6 million residents are thought to be members of a gang. Last March, after a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 collapsed, saw the bloodiest period since the end of the civil war in 1992: 481 people were killed, an average of 16 a day.
At 43.9 murders per 100,000 residents, according to the 2014 Global status report on violence prevention by the World Health Organization, the country’s homicide rate exceeds those of some war zones.
Romero is the most prominent victim of the 75,000 people believed to have been killed in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which raged from 1980 to 1992. No one was ever prosecuted for his assassination, but right-wing death squads have long been suspected.