Bukele team has been negotiating with gangs in prison reports El Faro

On September 3, the online periodical El Faro published an investigation revealing how the government of Nayib Bukele has been negotiating with leaders of MS-13 within the country's prisons.   The article, written by journalists Carlos Martínez, Óscar Martínez, Sergio Arauz and Efren Lemus  is titled Bukele's government has been negotiating with the MS-13 for a year to reduce homicides and electoral support and relies on hundreds of pages of leaked internal documents from the Salvadoran prison system.

The title of the article tells you most of what you need to know.   Starting in 2019 after Bukele took office and continuing to the present, representatives from Bukele's administration, headed by the director of prisons, Osiris Luna, have reportedly been negotiating with gang leaders.

An English translation of the report is being produced, but the El Faro English newsletter summarized some of the investigation:

Through months of negotiations, Bukele’s administration got the infamous gang to reduce murders and pledge its support for the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, during the 2021 election. In exchange, MS-13 members received prison benefits. 

El Faro obtained hundreds of documents, prison intelligence reports and book records on two maximum security penitentiaries that prove that the director of Tejido Social -- a government office created by the Bukele government to address the country’s gang crisis -- Carlos Marroquin, and the national director of prisons, Osiris Luna, quietly made 14 visits to jails to meet with top MS-13 leaders, including el Diablo de Hollywood and Snayder. During the visits, according to official documents, the two executives were accompanied by twenty individuals who, under official orders, were allowed into the penal centers without having to identify themselves. These people went into the penitentiary center with their faces obscured by hoods. At least one is a gang leader at large, according to the documents.

El Faro discovered that penal center directors documented -- in great detail -- the negotiations that government officials carried with the gang. The penitentiary records detailing these visits are signed and sealed, flooded with names of officials and gang members alike, as well as with dates, check-in hours, license plate numbers, holding cell locations and other irregularities that border on the illegal. They also include confidential prison intelligence, created by prison directors and deputy directors based on information provided by collaborative inmates. 

These disclosures echo back to the 2012 gang truce during the administration of Mauricio Funes, also first revealed by the same reporting team at El Faro,  in which the country's gangs agreed to reduce homicides in return for prison transfers and other benefits for their leaders in prison.   The 2012 truce led to an immediate reduction in the country's homicide rate that persisted for about a year before homicides surged again in 2014.  

That 2012 truce was deeply unpopular with the public.  In the years since the first gang truce, the attorney general's office has prosecuted various government officials involved in the truce, as well as some of the civilian mediators who were involved.

President Nayib Bukele immediately went on the counterattack in responding to the El Faro report.  Since before he was elected, Bukele has been attacking the country's investigative journalists at El Faro and other publications as "fake news" and asserting they serve only their financiers.  

He began by retweeting images from April  which showed hundreds of shirtless inmates, huddled together in rows on prison floors.   Also in April, Bukele ordered that inmates of all gangs be mixed together in the same cells.  They were images that human rights groups, El Faro, this author, and others decried as showing cruel human rights violations.  Today Bukele scornfully tweeted "They accused us of violating the human rights of terrorists.  Now they say we are giving them privileges?"    Bukele continued with his twitter stream, asserting that there was no proof of the El Faro allegations but ample proof of his government's "get tough" approach to the gangs.

Both can be true.  In April of this year there had been a sudden increase in murders. reportedly directed almost entirely by MS-13. In response to the murders, Bukele ordered his clamp down within the prisons.  Could it be that Bukele was negotiating with the gang, and that the gang decided to make a point of its power by a dramatic increase in murders showing its ongoing power throughout neighborhoods in the county?  Could it then be that Bukele responded by showing his power through a harsh crackdown within the prison?   Then with their respective points made, the talks continued.  Examples of high levels of violence, followed by crackdown, followed by easing the crackdown also took place in June 2019 and March 2020.    

Bukele and his team did not deny the authenticity of any of the documents shared in the El Faro article as far as I can tell.      

Bukele's response to the El Faro article has also included inviting the press today to come tour the prisons and to see if inmates of different gangs continue to be mixed in the same cells.  (El Faro reported this practice had quietly ended after April).

Bukele's government ministers quickly joined their leader in denying and ridiculing the article.

The country's attorney general, Raul Melara, announced that he would open an investigation into the El Faro revelations.

Asked about the allegations today in an event where he was delivering food aid, US Ambassador to El Salvador Ron Johnson said that the reasons why homicides went down was less important than keeping them low by the creation of jobs.

Between the international award-winning journalists of El Faro and the public relations machine of Nayib Bukele, I would place my faith in the accuracy of the El Faro reporting.   But will it make a difference in El Salvador?   Few outside of educated elites read the publication.  Bukele dominates the social media landscape which provides much of the news these days.   When other newspapers in the country covered the story, they did so with the headline "Bukele denies allegations...."   In this fight, populism is likely to  continue to be a victor over independent journalism.


Comments

Diego said…
A really important piece of information you left out - El Faro is owned by the Simán Family and their close friend, Carlos Dada - Bukele enemies. Bukele isn't perfect, but in the lead up to next years' Legislative Assembly election where Arena and the FMLN will likely lose their last remaining stranglehold on power and decision-making in the country, we can probably expect more of these unproven allegations.