The leading Salvadoran gangs vowed to desist from violence, theft, extortions and other crimes in a statement released to the media on April 23, 2015. Spokesmen of various crime syndicates, including «MS 13» and «Barrio 18», offered the pledge of as a “gift” to Archbishop Óscar A. Romero, set to be beatified in a month, and as a sign of their conversion. “This is the gift we wish to make to Archbishop Romero: our repentance and request for forgiveness to society for all the damage caused,” the gangs’ message begins.
The gangs’ statement has yet to cause widespread gratitude and joy among Salvadorans, because it is not yet clear whether the statement is anything more than a cynical ploy. Equally importantly, the populace is weary of efforts to rehabilitate the groups, preferring that authorities get tough on crime. In their message, the gangs request support for a plan to rehabilitate and reinsert gang members into society. For its part, the Salvadoran government has recently announced draconian measures to combat crime, including the creation of elite rapid response battalions, reminiscent of similar units that existed during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992). Business interests recently retained former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to provide security recommendations to the country. His report is due in a few weeks.
Nevertheless, the development shows how Romero’s beatification has the potential to have profound societal ramifications in El Salvador. And there is reason for hope: a previous gang truce with equivocal support from the Church and the government led to a dramatic reduction in the homicide rate from 2012 to 2013.
Perhaps the Salvadoran Church can seize the moment to accompany the youth groups in a path to real conversion. If so, Romero’s beatification can be the transformational moment the Church has dreamed it can be.