The politicians and the gangs

This week in El Salvador, more than 400 members of MS-13 are defendants in a criminal trial.  The gang members were captured in country-wide raids called "Operation Cuscatlán" which targeted the gang's finances and money-making activities.

From the AP:
El Salvador on Tuesday began a mass trial of over 400 alleged gang members, including 17 purported leaders of the feared transnational crime group Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. 
Sixteen suspects were in court while the rest watched via video conference from prisons. Nearly 100 defense lawyers are on the case, which could last until November given the volume of witnesses and evidence.
One of the witnesses in the Operation Cuscatlán trial is a high ranking MS leader who reached a deal with prosecutors for his testimony.   Using the pseudonym Noé, this witness testified not only about the criminal activities of his gang, but also about the deals politicians made with the gangs.

Noé  testified that MS-13 leadership met with ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano, shortly before the 2014 election.  According to the gangster turned informant, Quijano offered up to $1 million in return for votes which would carry him to the presidency of El Salvador.  Quijano lost in the election to Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN, and is now the president of the country's Legislative Assembly.

According to Noé, when the gang members complained about ARENA political advertisements which promised to eliminate the gangs from the country, Quijano assured them the ads were just for political show.

There was also testimony surrounding current San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt of ARENA.   Noé testified that Muyshondt delivered 69 thousand dollars to the gang fifteen days before the 2015 election where he was elected a deputy in the Legislative Assembly.  Muyshondt has also been seen in a video secretly recorded by a gang member, negotiating with the gangs on behalf of ARENA leading up to the 2014 presidential election.

Although politicians and the public are reacting with feigned surprise and outrage, information about the payoffs and vote-buying in the 2014 presidential election has been around for some time.

In February 2018, El Faro obtained access to testimony of Noé and published a more detailed version of his description of the dealings between the gangs and politicians.

In 2017, another gang leader turned state's witness, "Nalo,"  also described vote buying by the two main political parties vying in the 2014 election.  His testimony parallels the testimony from Noé this week:

The ex-leader of the 18 Revolucionarios gang testified that the FMLN paid a total of $250,000 to the three principal gangs in El Salvador to help procure the victory of president Salvador Sanchez Ceren in the 2014 presidential elections.   He also testified that ARENA paid $100,000 to the gangs for the same purpose. 
Nalo described a meeting in December 2013 in which representatives of all 3 major gang factions met with FMLN party figures, including current government ministers and the highest ranking members of the FMLN.  The FMLN offered $150,000 to receive 120 thousand votes in the first round of the presidential election.  Nalo testified that mediator Raul Mijango hsd provided assistance in the negotiation.... 
Before the second round of elections, officials from ARENA also met with the gangs according to Nalo.  The gangs told the ARENA representatives that they needed $100,000 from the conservative party for a balance of powers.   Nalo described a meeting at which the $100,000 in cash from ARENA was delivered in a suitcase to the gangs.
President Nayib Bukele and his allies immediately seized on the testimony regarding Norman Quijano.   Bukele demanded that Quijano resign and that Attorney General Raul Melara process all those involved under the country's anti-terrorist law. Bukele urged the public to watch whether ARENA, the FMLN and the Legislative Assembly would take actions against those involved in payoffs to the gangs.

Not surprisingly Quijano denied the accusations.  The leader of the Legislative Assembly from ARENA announced that he would appoint a commission to investigate those who had dealings with the gangs and suggested the focus would be the FMLN government in power for the previous 10 years

A few comments to conclude:

As the politicians are quick to point out, all the damning testimony has just come from two gang leaders who have cut deals with the government to get better treatment.   There does not seem to be much, if any, corroborating evidence.

Despite the fact that the possible payoffs have been discussed for years, the attorney general's office has never brought any charges against political parties for payoffs to the gangs at a national level.   (There have been prosecutions of mayors of smaller municipalities who have made deals for votes).

The 2014 election was a very close one, in which Sanchez Ceren won in the second round by approximately 6000 votes.   Given this narrow margin of victory, and the indications that both parties were involved in payoffs to the gangs, it is difficult to say with assurance that his victory was legitimate.

Obviously El Salvador does need a strong body to combat corruption and impunity.   Whether the CICIES proposed by Nayib Bukele will be that body is still to be seen.