El Salvador church leaders call for new gang truce

SAN SALVADOR Tue Apr 22, 2014 7:30pm EDT

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SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Church leaders in El Salvador on Tuesday said they want to revive a fragile truce between the country's powerful street gangs in order to curb a resurgence of violent crime.

Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres, who helped broker a 2012 deal between gang leaders, proposed that religious leaders establish new talks with gang leaders.

"This is about re-launching a pacification strategy based in the establishment of a formal mechanism of dialogue with the gangs," Colindres told reporters.

The 2012 truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18 helped cut the Central American country's murder rate in mid-2013 to around five per day, a 10-year low, from around 12 a day.

But homicides have started climbing again and now number nearly 10 per day nationally. Murders rose 44 percent in the first three months of 2014 compared to a year ago, according to the Supreme Court's forensic medical authority.

While the homicide rate is still below levels seen before the 2012 truce, the country still has one of the highest murder rates in the world due to ongoing turf battles between the gangs.

Mauricio Funes, the outgoing president of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), formed by ex-guerrillas after the country's civil war, has backed away from publicly backing the deal with gang leaders in the run-up to this year's elections.

The FMLN's Salvador Sanchez Ceren narrowly won a second-round vote in March to become the first ex-rebel leader elected to the presidency since the end of the 1980-92 civil war.

Sanchez Ceren, who takes office in June, has said he would not negotiate with criminal groups. His conservative opponent had accused the government of negotiating with gangs and won support from many fed up with widespread violence and extortion.

Two gang leaders in February told Reuters that the truce was falling apart after the government stopped helping gang leaders in prison communicate with members on the street.

Sanchez Ceren, a pious Catholic despite his past as a Marxist revolutionary, is due to meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday. He has not yet named a security minister or detailed his anti-crime strategy.

(Writing by Michael O'Boyle, editing by G Crosse)

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