When it comes to state-led negotiations with non-state actors, few analyses focus on governments’ engagement with gangs and organized crime groups. This gap in negotiation studies is problematic since youth violence and gang activity have been increasing around the world since the start of the 21st century. Adapting the prevailing strategies for negotiating with difficult actors, namely Pruitt’s matrix and strategies in Negotiation with Terrorists, to a gang-conflict context will address this discrepancy. This paper suggests that gangs are identified as less ideological and less representative, qualifying them for Pruitt’s matrix defining difficult actors. As a result, the five dominant strategies for addressing gangs, capitulating, combating, isolating, mainstreaming, and negotiating, must be tailored for combating gang violence, crime, and ensuring institutional reform. Of these five strategies, negotiation is most applicable to achieving states’ goals, as illustrated by the 2012 and 2020 El Salvador Gang Truces.


When it comes to state-led negotiations with non-state actors, few analyses focus on governments' engagement with gangs and organized crime groups. Gangs and other criminal groups are hierarchical organizations made up of individuals with a shared sense of identity and loyalty, that participate in illegal or illicit activities (including but not limited to: money laundering, human and narco-trafficking, homicide, and extortion). Considering the increase in global gang activity and violence in recent decades, states need to begin developing strategies to engage and potentially negotiate with criminal organizations to secure ceasefires, address crime, and initiate reforms.

Analyzing how states should engage with gangs requires two evaluations. First, addressing how gangs are classified is essential to understanding the nature of these organizations. In Pruitt's "Negotiating with Terrorists," the dimensions of ideology and representation1 can be used to classify gangs, which are less ideological and less representative. Second, examining strategies used to address gang risings highlights why negotiation is the best option available to states looking to end violence, reduce crime, and reform institutions. Again, Pruitt's article is useful for this evaluation, as it highlights five strategies for engaging with terrorists: capitulating, combating, isolating, mainstreaming, and negotiating.2  Despite varying levels of success, these strategies can be adapted to address gangs. A comparative analysis of El Salvador's 2012 Gang Truce and the current 2020 Truce further illustrates the potential of state-gang negotiations.

Gangs, Ideology, and Representation

According to Pruitt, terrorist groups are classified according to ideology, or "the sense of adhering to an integrated set of abstract beliefs," and representation, "the sense of speaking for a sizeable set of people who acknowledge their leadership."3 Through this matrix, less representative and more ideological groups, like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, have inflexible beliefs that are not emblematic of the overall population. In contrast, more representative and less ideological organizations, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), can often be perceived as ethno-nationalistic. They have widespread support but lack ideology as a driver for their actions. For more representative and more ideological groups, like al-Qaeda, strong extremist views are also echoed by the public. Pruitt's matrix leaves the less representative and less ideological cell empty since no terrorist organization lacks ideology and representation. However, gangs and criminal organizations match these criteria, as they are both non-representative of the general population and are not driven by ideology.4 Pruitt's matrix is recreated to include examples of gangs in Table 1. 

Table 1: Pruitt’s Dimensions for Types of Terrorist Groups, Including Gangs

  Less Ideological More Ideological
More Ideological IRA
Tamil Tigers
Ku Klux Klan
Less Ideological Maras Salvatrucha (MS-13) Barrio 18 (M-18)
Baader-Meinhof Gang Red Brigades
Gush Emunem
Aum Shinrikyo

Note: Adapted from "Negotiation with Terrorists," by Pruitt, D., 2006, International Negotiation, 11, p. 372.

When it comes to representation, gangs tendentially have limited outside support for their activities. Though the gang's size and the extent of its periphery network may be far-reaching, the general community often opposes gang activities and may support penalizing members.5  Despite this, gangs flourish where government control is weak. Community members may be coerced into permitting gang activity due to threats of violence and the provision of services6. During the Covid-19 pandemic, gangs in El Salvador enforced stay-at-home orders in their territories and reduced extortion demands on local businesses to "show good faith."7 Hereby, gangs use the social, economic, and political vacuum to their advantage, especially where government-funded health and financial services failed the populace. This coercion is not sustainable or cohesive, but it further propagates the extent of embeddedness of criminal organizations in their communities and impacts the strategies for engaging with gangs.

Gangs are also non-ideological. While some gangs may have ideological or political origins, they are most forcefully driven by economic motivators, prompting involvement in criminal and illicit financing.8 Though some gangs may interact with governments through corrupt deals or partnerships, their motivation is territorial and economic control rather than political power.9 For instance, in 2019, the Sinaloa Cartel in Guatemala partnered with then-Presidential candidate Mario Estrada to finance his campaign in exchange for greater access to narco-trafficking routes in the country.10 Recognizing the true motivators of gangs in place of ideology affects the usefulness of various state-level approaches to engaging with criminal groups.

Rahman and Vukovic emphasize the credibility of gangs filling the less representative and less ideological cell of the matrix by noting that while gangs and terrorist groups differ, they "share similar tactics and propensity to use violence as a means of intimidation."11 Including gangs within Pruitt's matrix is relevant since the strategies used to engage with terrorist organizations can be modified for gangs to varying degrees of effectiveness.




Strategies for Engaging Gangs

Pruitt outlines five strategies for dealing with terrorists: capitulating, combating, isolating, mainstreaming, and negotiating.12 As shown above, these strategies are also relevant to addressing gangs and criminal organizations, though adaptations are necessary. In Pruitt's analysis, each strategy is based on the goal of ending violence and conflict with terrorists. When turning to gangs, the goal is to end violence, reduce crime, and reform the social, political, and economic conditions that engender the gang problem.13 Analyzing the four strategies individually demonstrates their variegated usefulness (or lack thereof) in achieving this goal.


Capitulation involves giving in to the opposing group's demands. Pruitt does not provide detail on government capitulation to terrorist groups. Yet, according to this analysis, this strategy prompts "fear that capitulation will encourage further terrorism" and only works when terrorists' demands are moderate.  Similarly, capitulation to gangs and criminal organizations has little effectiveness. Referring to gang motivators and lack of ideology, criminal organizations' demands usually center on continuing or increased territorial control, security for members, or the maintenance of their economic activities.15  If governments aim to end violence and reduce crime, capitulation cannot be considered viable.


Combating seeks to defeat the opposition through force, and Pruitt states that this method is least effective against terrorist groups that are more representative. This is due to the fact, that more representative terrorist groups may receive funding and assistance from supporters in response to state-sanctioned uses of force. Moreover, this support may increase as the general population becomes more affected by conflict. With this logic, less representative organizations are more manageable since governments can cut off access to funding channels and identify participants through curfews. However, this argument explicated by Pruitt does not similarly apply to gang operations. Though they are less representative, gangs are embedded in their communities, openly identifiable, and have access to flexible illicit funding via money laundering and trafficking schemes. As a result, state-led combat with gangs, even with sizeable law enforcement and security forces, could further harm citizens and incite more violence. Additionally, combatting gangs would fail to address the systemic issues that prompted the cycle of gang violence. Long-term damages and institutional instability could incite other gangs to fill the vacuum if the target group is eradicated. Considering these implications combating gangs presents a weak strategy for state policy.

El Salvador's reactive law enforcement strategy of mano dura – firm hand – is comparable to state-level combat against gangs. Mano dura tactics were implemented in 2003 in response to gang activity and included punitive policies such as imprisonment for having gang-related tattoos.16 Though the public supported these policies, they failed to address the root issues leading to gang activity.17 Many incarcerated gang members were invigorated in prisons, forming stronger bonds with fellow inmates and promoting increased violence and criminal activity as a mechanism of retaliation.18 As gang violence continued to develop, so did public displays of violence, with extrajudicial killings and death squads emerging to address the gang problem alongside the state.19


The isolation strategy seeks to provide "concession to an effort to undercut the terrorists."20 This strategy hinges on the idea that governments back non-state groups' moderate supporters while more extreme factions diminish in influence. Pruitt centers this strategy around the "onion" model, which illustrates the support dynamics surrounding terrorist groups.21  As seen in Figure 1, a strategy of isolation would decrease the terrorist support network against the government's strengthened position.22

Figure 1: Layers of a Population when Terrorists Are Losing

Note: Adapted from "Negotiation with Terrorists," by Pruitt, D., 2006, International Negotiation, 11, p. 378.

While this model applies to terrorist organizations, gangs do not have moderate factions that can be segregated from the organization as a whole. As such, isolation as a strategy for addressing gangs is ineffective and would not achieve the state's goal of reducing violence and crime or reforming the system to end the gang cycle. An adaptation to this strategy involves isolating criminal organizations by improving institutions long-term, so drivers to gang membership are diminished. Addressing the risk factors that encourage gang participation, such as poor economic opportunities, weak education systems, and social inequality, would reduce the motivation for at-risk populations, especially youth, to engage in gangs.23 These isolation efforts are challenging due to the difficulties of implementing long-term systemic change. If the state leaves gangs unaddressed, they could disrupt reform efforts and create obstacles to social transformation. Accordingly, a strategy of isolation adapted to gangs will need to be compounded with state-gang negotiations to ensure that economic and social development takes root.


Mainstreaming involves engaging non-state groups in the conventional political arena and encouraging them to pursue their agenda through government.24  For terrorist groups, mainstreaming is compounded with isolating so that moderate actors pursue their agenda through politics, while more hardline actors lose influence over the extremist network. This strategy is useful for ideologically or politically driven groups, but gangs lacking political motivation, would not be influenced by mainstreaming efforts alone. Like isolation, mainstreaming is a strategy that must be supplemented by negotiation in order to effectively achieve the state's goals. A better approach would be conceptualizing mainstreaming as a long-term outcome of state-gang negotiations. Gradual changes in public opinion, education reform, and job opportunities could position some gang leaders as advocates for community reform, and these leaders could become strong candidates for local government positions later on.


The final strategy Pritt elucidated is negotiation. Negotiation seeks to reach an agreement with non-state actors to end conflict. In this context, Pruitt suggests that more representative and less ideological terrorist groups are the most likely to produce a negotiated settlement.25 He contends that more ideological groups often have extreme and inflexible demands, whereas less ideological groups do not, and this applies to gangs and criminal organizations. Since gangs are less ideological and motivated by economics, territory, and organizational security, they are more likely to come to the negotiating table if they perceive enticing gains from state-gang negotiations.26 In addition, negotiation is the most effective strategy for the state to enact a ceasefire, reduce crime, and reform institutions. While the first two strategies, capitulating and combating, fail to achieve states’ goals, the last two strategies, isolating and mainstreaming, are impactful when combined with negotiating. This is evident when analyzing how the negotiation process is adjusted for gangs, as shown in the following cases of the 2012 El Salvador Gang Truce and the current 2020 Truce.

Negotiating with Gangs: El Salvador

Rahman and Vukovic explore the ideal process for approaching negotiations with gangs. In "Sympathy for the Devil," they examine the concept of 'ripeness' for negotiations and outline a three-step approach, including state-sponsored mediation, negotiation, and mainstreaming. To summarize, trilateral negotiations (between at least two gangs and the state) are considered ripe when "all three parties must feel the hurting stalemate," or mutually hurting stalemate (MHS), and when these parties believe that the negotiations provide mutually enticing opportunities (MEO) that are "exclusive to the process."27 Once the MHS and MEO are perceived, the first stage of engagement, state-sponsored mediation, can begin. This includes backchannel talks between the gang leaders and third-party mediators, allowing the government to maintain plausible deniability against engaging with criminal organizations. This is followed by open negotiations between governments and gangs. Public opinion plays a significant role at this stage, as constituents will likely hold an unfavorable view towards gang dialogue. However, two-level diplomacy should also be utilized to garner public support, and civil society organizations are especially beneficial at this stage. The final stage in this process is mainstreaming, which focuses on monitoring the negotiated agreement and integrating gangs into their communities. This step is critical for reconciling and rehabilitating the public and gang members, and it is this stage that implements long-term reform to stop the cycle of violence. Rahman and Vukovic examined this process through the successes and failures of the 2012 Gang Truce in El Salvador.

El Salvador: 2012 Gang Truce

In 2012, leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 agreed on a ceasefire in El Salvador. The homicide rates dropped by 53%, and the truce lasted until 2014, about fifteen months in total. This truce was facilitated by two mediators, ex-guerrilla commander and congressman Raul Mijango, and Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres.28 In exchange for ceasing hostilities, MS-13 and Barrio 18 requested support for reintegration into society through work and educational opportunities, as well as fair application of the law. First, the government maintained a distance from the truce; only after the ceasefire proved successful did the President acknowledge his initiative.29

At this point, public outcry against the government-sponsored truce impacted the security of the negotiation process. Though ineffective, the harsher mano dura policies were the preferred method for addressing gangs' criminal activity, and negotiation alone appeared to be soft on gang leaders. Additionally, because mano dura laws criminalized support for gang members, the government's involvement in the negotiation was "legally dubious" and could "establish precedent that judicial prosecution was negotiable."30 Furthermore, stage two of the state-gang negotiation process failed to take shape. As mediators were replaced supporters for negotiation were removed from office, and hard-liners in the government returned to confrontational policies towards gangs. The truce collapsed as gangs re-armed, and the homicide rate climbed once more.  

This attempt at state-gang negotiation successfully implemented a ceasefire and proved that governments could engage with gangs to reduce violence. Nevertheless, the failure to sustain the ceasefire can be attributed to the government's inability to win public support and follow through with stage two of the negotiating process. Had the Salvadoran government engaged directly with MS-13 and Barrio 18, further agreements to stop the cycle of violence could have been attained. Exploring the current 2020 developments provides a helpful comparison to show how renewed negotiations should be strategized to promote lasting peace and reform.

El Salvador: 2020 Gang Truce?

Since his election in 2019, President Nayib Bukele's administration has seen both an increase in mano dura policies and a 60% decrease in El Salvador's homicide rate.31 President Bukele outwardly attributes the reduction in violence to his "Territorial Control Plan," a law enforcement strategy that aims to fight gangs by cutting detainees' communication out of jails, mass detentions, modernizing police patrols and equipment, and authorizing uses of lethal force. Although novel in some aspects, this strategy is not wholly different from the unsuccessful mano dura policies his predecessors relied upon and does not explain the dramatic reduction in homicide rates. Instead, secret negotiations and truces are more likely to be the explanatory cause for reduced violence.

On September 26th, 2020, El Faro published an article detailing prison reports that show visits between incarcerated gang leaders and government officials since 2019.32 The article states that several agreements have been reached, including a reversal of a decision to merge the cell blocks of rival gang members, a softening of punitive maximum security laws, and promises of "benefits" should the "government gain control of the Legislative Assembly in February 2021."33 In exchange, gang leaders must commit to ending homicides and supporting Bukele's party, Nuevas Ideas. There is evidence that incarcerated gang leaders are ordering ceasefires to members outside of prison, thus prompting reduced homicide rates.

This current effort at securing a ceasefire signals another attempt at stage one of the state- gang negotiation process. In terms of timing, it would appear that the moment is ripe for gangs since the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their access to money flows and lowers the threat of one gang breaking the truce. As for the government, it is unclear whether Bukele's administration has perceived an MHS or MEO. Similarly to the 2012 Gang Truce, the government's lack of an MHS or MEO could sabotage future negotiations if they do not commit to reciprocating any agreements or preparing the public for possible negotiations. For example, recent authorization for the detention of two figures in the 2012 negotiations, David Munguía Payés, a former Security Minister, and former President Mauricio Funes Cartagena, raise questions as to the public and governments' readiness to embrace dialogue with gangs34. If the Salvadoran government reneges on continuing negotiations to stages two and three, there will be a precedent that state-gang negotiations are a non-starter.


Overall, Pruitt's dimensions and strategies for dealing with terrorists can be adapted to address gangs and organized crime groups. Gangs are classified as less representative and less ideological, which makes them stronger candidates for negotiations. When it comes to strategies for achieving states' goals for ending violence, reducing crime, and reforming institutions, state and gang negotiations prove more effective than capitulating or combating, and necessary for successful efforts at isolating or mainstreaming. El Salvador's 2012 Gang Truce's partial success illustrates this, as it successfully implemented a ceasefire but failed to garner support for long-term agreements on reform to take shape. This provides a lesson for the 2020 Gang Truce efforts, which could collapse if the Salvadoran government fails to alter public and government stances against state and gang negotiations.


1 Pruitt, D. G. (2006). "Negotiation with Terrorists", International Negotiation, p. 372.

2 Ibid., p. 373.

3 Ibid., p. 372.

4 Rahman, E., and Vukovic, S. (2019). "Sympathy for the Devil: When and How to Negotiate with Criminal Gangs -- Case of El Salvador", Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, p. 938.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 938.

7 Piché, G. R. (2020). "In El Salvador, criminal gangs are enforcing virus-related restrictions. Here's why", Washington Post, 1 June.

8 Winton, A. (2014). "Gangs in a global perspective", Environment and Urbanization, p. 409

9 Felbab-Brown, V. (2020). Bargaining with the Devil to Avoid Hell? A Discussion Paper on Negotiations with Criminal Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. Barcelona: Institute for Integrated Transition

10 Kennedy, K. (2019). Guatemala/El Salvador/Honduras: Corruption and Organized Crime in Central America's Northern Triangle Countries Impact on Migration Crisis Worsening Regional Instability, European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

11  Rahman and Vukovic 2019, p. 938.

12 Pruitt, 2006.

13 Wennmann, A. (2014). "Negotiated Exits from Organized Crime? Building Peace in Conflict and Crime-affected Contexts", Negotiation Journal, p. 268.

14 Pruitt 2006, p. 374.

15 Rahman and Vukovic 2019, p. 938.

16 Hume, M. (2007). "Mano Dura: El Salvador Responds to Gangs", Development in Practice, p.739

17 Umaña, I. A., de León, B. A., & Táger, A. G. (2014). "El Salvador: Negotiating with gangs", Accord: Legitimacy and Peace Processes, p. 95.

18 Morse, A. (2011). "Santa Tecla: Citizen Security with Citizen Participation", In A. Morse, A. Isacson, and M. Meyer, Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America: Reversing Exclusion through Smart Policing and Social Investment, Washington Office on Latin America.

19 Hume 2007, p. 746

20 Pruitt 2006, p. 373.

21 Ibid., p. 375.

22 Ibid., p. 378.

23 Burgos, C. X. (2020). "Lessons from Gang Violence Prevention", Equanimity Foundation, 7 October.

24 Pruitt 2006, p. 379.

25 Ibid., p. 380.

26 Rahman and Vukovic 2019, p. 940

27 Ibid., pp. 940-941.

28 Umaña et al. 2014, p. 96.

29 Ibid., p. 97.

30 Ibid.

31 International Crisis Group (2020). Homicide Drop in El Salvador: Presidential Triumph or Gang Trend?, Brussels: International Crisis Group., p. i.

32 Martínez, C., Martínez, Ó., Arauz, S., and Lemus, E. (2020). "Bukele Has Been Negotiating with MS-13 for a Reduction in Homicides and Electoral Support", El Faro, 6 September.

33 Ibid.

34 Carlson, B. (2020). "The Problem with the Gang Truce Isn't Strategic, It's Political", El Faro, 7 August.


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