SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Leaders of El Salvador's two largest street gangs have reached a truce aimed at reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world, according to jailhouse interviews published Friday.
The El Diario de Hoy newspaper reported that leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18 gangs confirmed the existence of a truce during interviews with a half-dozen Mara leaders at prisons in Ciudad Barrios and Cojutepeque.
The Maras have their roots in Southern California, where young men seeking refuge from Central America's civil wars formed violent gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and its suburbs in the 1980s. Gang members later deported from the U.S. re-established their violent organizations in their native countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
A recent U.N. report said El Salvador and neighboring Honduras have the highest homicide rates in the world with 66 and 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively, in 2010. Together with Guatemala – which has a homicide rate of 41 per 100,000 – Central America has been struggling to find solutions to the violence.
El Salvador's office of Security and Justice Minister Gen. David Munguia did not respond to requests to confirm the reported truce, nor persistent rumors that the government may have negotiated the pact in exchange for transferring gang leaders to lower-security prisons.
El Diario said Mara Salvatrucha leader Romeo Henriquez and Mara 18 leader Ernesto Mojica confirmed there was a truce; the two gangs are bitter rivals, and much of the country's violence is due to their turf battles. The gangs also engage in extortion and drug trafficking.
"If people don't believe us or the words written on that paper, let them look at reality," Mojica told El Diario. "Look at the homicide figures, and then tell me if we are living up (to the pact)."
Killings in El Salvador, which can average 12 to 15 per day, do appear to have declined after the truce was purportedly declared earlier this month, but authorities say they have not yet compiled nationwide figures that would confirm or refute that.
The truce was confirmed by head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres, who said he acted as an intermediary in the talks.
"We never spoke of a negotiation between the government and the gangs, nor between the church and the gangs," said Colindres. "We were mediating an understanding between rival gangs to decrease the violence." He said the effort was carried out with the government's knowledge, but without its participation.
Colindres said the government promised the gangs nothing in return, but key gang leaders were transferred to lower-security prisons before the purported truce took effect around March 11.
About 30 high-level gang members previously been held at the maximum security lockup known Zacatecoluca have been transferred to other prisons where they will have even more contact with their underlings. Experts caution that Central American gang members frequently direct criminal activities from inside prison.
Most Central American nations have responded to the region's crime with tough anti-gang laws, which have added to problems of overcrowding and violence in their prison systems. In February, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina proposed legalizing drugs as a way to decrease violent crime.
"The good thing is a temporary reduction in killings," said political analyst Roberto Canas, a former rebel who signed peace accords that ended El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war. "The bad thing is that nobody knows how long it will last."