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Police officers in El Salvador
Police officers in El Salvador
Benjamin Witte

Make it stop! That's the message delivered this week by an organization of Protestant churches in El Salvador, Central America's smallest but deadliest country.

The group, known as the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, or IPAZ, is hoping that for the week between Christmas and New Year, gang members, security forces, operatives of so-called death squads and others responsible for the nation's horrific homicide numbers will accept a temporary "peace pact."

"This time of year lends itself to concrete gestures of peace. This may not be an open war. But the violence is killing us," IPAZ declared in a statement released Tuesday.

The organization's desperate Christmas plea — that the killings cease, even if just for a week — underscores just how devastating the situation continues to be in El Salvador, where last year, authorities reported more than 6,600 homicides, by far the highest annual total since the end of the country's civil war (1980-1992) more than a decade earlier.

This year the numbers are down somewhat. As of Dec. 7, the murder tally stood at 5,034, the PNC, El Salvador's national police force, reported. But that's still a staggering total for country that is roughly the same size, both in terms of land area and population, as the U.S. state of Massachusetts. By contrast, 133 people were murdered in Massachusetts last year, according to the Boston Globe.

Beyond this latest plea for a temporary truce, the deeper question is how to reverse the culture and cycles of violence. The current government, headed by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a civil war-era guerrilla commander, has opted for a zero-tolerance approach to the gangs. But that's just led to even more violence, including an uptick in killings of and by police officers and military. Ten police officers were killed in November alone, El Diario de Hoy reported.

Speaking with the San Salvador daily last month, top Salvadoran crime analyst Carlos Carcach reflected on the various strategies of the past: "It seems like no matter what we do, we end up worse, sicker than we were before." In both its simplicity and realism, calling for a Christmas truce at least reminds the country that it is obliged to keep trying.

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