The legal framework for civilian protection is international humanitarian law, which binds state and nonstate actors to rules meant to protect civilians in armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has argued that international humanitarian law is applicable when any “war” amounts to armed conflict, defined by a certain intensity of violence: 25 to 1,000 war-related deaths per year and a sophisticated enough command structure that armed groups are actually able to implement such law. Clearly, the homicide figures in Central America far exceed the benchmarks for war-related deaths per year.
Earlier this year, in an effort to curb the violence, the government in El Salvador negotiated a groundbreaking deal with the Salvadoran MS-13 and a rival gang, Calle-18. In a bold move, mediators in El Salvador essentially extended the framework of humanitarian engagement to gang warfare, brokering a peace treaty between the two gangs and the Salvadoran government. After the deal, homicides decreased by 32 percent and kidnappings by 50 percent, as reported by The New York Times. In May, the gangs extended their truce to school zones and agreed to end forced recruitment of child soldiers.
The nine-month old ceasefire suggests that (at least in some countries) MS-13 and Calle-18 are highly structured enough to enforce humanitarian commitments throughout their far flung cells. The Organization of American States is monitoring the truce, lauded by its secretary general for stemming violence. Appeals from both gangs for the same multi-track diplomacy have now spread to Guatemala and Honduras.