Gangs in crime-plagued El Salvador call a truce

SAN SALVADOR Sat Mar 24, 2012 12:12am EDT

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SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Rival gangs operating in El Salvador have called a truce as the Central American country confronts a plague of violent crime, according to a statement issued on Friday by the gangs and endorsed by local Roman Catholic church leaders.

The document, signed by representatives of the country's two most powerful gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and gang Mara 18, was delivered to various media and has been endorsed by the Salvadoran Catholic Church, local church leaders said.

Local media reports based on interviews with gang leaders say the truce began this week.

The gangs have been in a period of "reflection" since last year as they considered the toll of crime in the country, according to the statement.

Rising violence, much of it linked to local gangs, fueled a 9 percent jump in the country's murder rate last year.

According to data published by the United Nations, El Salvador has a homicide rate of 66 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world.

Much of that violence is blamed on Mexican drug cartels that use the country as a transit point.

"Considering the pain it causes, to our families and ourselves, we have taken this decision (to call a truce), because we are all aware that many dead are our own," the statement said.

The statement says that it speaks for more than 100,000 gang members who "do not want to wage war."

Killings in El Salvador, which can average more than 12 a day, do seem to have abated in recent days.

The statement rejected media reports that the gangs were paid off by the government in exchange for putting down their weapons.

The Vatican representative in El Salvador, Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, is due to celebrate a prison Mass on Monday. Pope Benedict arrived in Mexico on Friday speaking against drug traffickers.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Will Dunham)

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