Deciding whether to make a deal with the devil is always a dilemma born of desperation, and it seems to be the grim choice facing the Central American nation of El Salvador and its Catholic leadership today.
Citing figures from the country’s National Civil Police, media outlets reported on Monday that at least 481 people were murdered in El Salvador in March, an average of 16 homicides every day, mostly related to conflict among rival criminal gangs. That’s a stunning tally for a country of just 6 million people, and represents a 52 percent spike over the same month last year.
The carnage is mostly the result of the collapse of a truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. Given estimates that gang membership in the country may be as high as 65,000, any uptick in hostility is devastating. Experts believe that if something doesn’t change by year’s end, El Salvador will displace its neighbor Honduras as the world’s most dangerous nation outside a war zone.
Back in 2012, the leadership of the Catholic Church was split over whether to take part in negotiations involving gang leaders and government officials that led to the truce.
Bishop Fabio Colindres, who heads the country’s military diocese, agreed to serve as a backdoor mediator. InSight Crime, a Colombia-based foundation that studies organized crime in the Americas, reported that his participation was crucial in convincing both the public and political elites that détente was in the national interest.
Yet Colindres was disowned by the leaders of the bishops’ conference. After the truce was reached, the conference released a statement saying that it “has not produced any benefits for the honorable and hard-working population.”
In effect, the gangs agreed to curb violence in exchange for concessions such as better prison conditions. Murder rates fell, but polls showed the deal was widely unpopular, in part because gang members may have stopped killing each other, but they didn’t refrain from crime that affects ordinary people, such as robbery, kidnapping, and extortion, nor did they stop slugging it out with police. At least 40 police officers were killed in 2014 alone.
“The ceasefire meant the gangs could stop killing each other and concentrate their operations on extorting the rest of us,” Elena Sanchez, a fruit stall owner, told the UK-based Telegraph in February. “Let them kill each other and give the rest of us a break.”
In one measure of popular frustration, a group of businessmen in El Salvador announced in January that they had hired Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor famed for his “zero tolerance” approach to petty crime, to dispatch a fact-finding mission to propose ways to make crackdowns more effective.
Others, however, believe that the only way to solve the problem is through a revival of talks with the gangs, and many in that camp are looking to the Catholic Church to take the lead as the country’s most trusted social institution.
“I think they’re the only partner with enough credibility to make it happen,” said Héctor Silva, a Salvadoran author and research fellow at American University, in a February interview with Reuters.
So far, the bishops’ line seems to be “yes” to dialogue, but only through official government channels. They do not appear prepared to act on their own.
In February, Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador said the Church is open to dialogue with gang members, though not “negotiations,” especially at the pastoral level. Given that Chávez was a close collaborator of El Salvador’s revered Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980 and who will be beatified as a martyr in May, he has wide moral authority.
“Dialogue should be open to everyone, and everyone has to be an actor in this peace process,” Chávez told reporters in mid-February.
Chávez pointed out that El Salvador’s civil war during the 1980s and 90s was finally ended not by ramped-up military efforts, but talks between the government and rebel groups.
“When one wants to find solutions to violence by using more violence, it won’t work,” he said. “We’ve got to break the molds and change paradigms, or else the deaths will keep piling up, increasing the pain of the families.”
After Chávez spoke, his boss, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador, clarified that while the doors of the Church are always open, Church leaders will not take part in any “secret” talks. That was likely a reference to the fact that certain politicians have tried to set themselves up as informal mediators, even though the government of leftist President Salvador Sánchez Cerén so far has ruled out direct negotiations.
Any role for the Church, Escobar said, can only come through a transparent government initiative.
In part, the bishops’ reluctance to take the lead may reflect a split at the grassroots over whether dialogue is the only hope to stop the killing, or whether it simply emboldens hardened criminals to hold the threat of another rampage over the country’s head.
There are also real perils for Church personnel who try to act as mediators, and not just the risk of violence.
Last year, a Catholic priest named Rev. Antonio Rodriguez, known as “Padre Toño”, was forced to make a deal with prosecutors who charged him with being an accessory to Barrio 18 leaders, allegedly smuggling cell phones into their jails. Rodriguez claimed he was trying to persuade them to uphold the truce, but ended up having to leave the country.
There’s also the danger that public opinion will turn an attempted peacemaker into a villain if a deal falls apart. When Colindres washed and kissed the feet of gang members during an Easter rite in 2014, the media excoriated him for coddling criminals. He pulled out of the dialogue and refuses to discuss the issue today.
Felix Arevalo, a Baptist pastor in San Salvador, says many church leaders fear backlash from their flocks if they reach out to the gangs.
“The church responds to a religious marketplace that doesn’t demand a call to forgive our enemies or work for peace even at the cost of our lives,” Arevalo told The Christian Century in March. “The market demands a vindictive god, a repressive god, so that’s what the church offers.”
Moreover, gang violence is so widespread that it often spills over to the churches.
As Carlos Colorado has written at Tim’s El Salvador Blog, in 2014 alone, six members of an Evangelical church were killed in Tacuba; the Pentecostal Elim Church reported attacks against its members; an 84-year-old guard at the historic “Don Rua” church, a Catholic parish, was murdered, and a man was shot dead at “La Luz del Mundo” Evangelical Church. Churchgoers complain of being hassled before and after services, and some stay away out of fear.
Much of that violence may be random, but observers believe some gang leaders target Christian activists, especially ministers and other church personnel who try to persuade Salvadoran youth not to join.
Whatever the explanation, there now appears to be a chicken-and-egg dynamic — the Church won’t get involved unless the government acts first, and the government needs political cover from the Church in order to act.
Leanne Rikkers of FESPAD, a Salvadoran human rights organization, said a truce won’t last without the government’s support, and a blessing from the Church would provide essential political cover.
“It’s setting a tone that this isn’t a political issue, it’s a moral issue, it’s a social issue, it’s a human rights issue,” Rikkers said. “For the Church to play that role is very important.”
The tension comes as the Church in El Salvador prepares for Romero’s May 23 beatification ceremony in San Salvador, which is expected to be one of the largest public events in the country’s history.
Slain for his outspoken opposition to human rights abuses and government oppression, Romero became an icon of the progressive liberation theology movement in Catholicism that sought to place the Church on the side of the poor in struggles for social change.
For outsiders, Romero’s beatification likely will be a celebration of the past and the other martyrs of El Salvador’s civil war, including four American missionary nuns raped and killed by a military death squad in 1980 and six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, slain by the military in 1989.
For Salvadorans themselves, however, the focus may be more on the present, shaped by the realities of what InSight Crime calls “a criminal dynamic that is taking on overtones of a low-intensity war.”
Facing blood in the streets and a perhaps understandably cautious body of bishops, the burning question for locals posed by the beatification may be, “What would Romero do?”